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Orange and Cedar Ridge High School students attend the CADCA Youth Conference

Prepare yourself for an organization with a very long name, one that reaches almost as far as its impact.

The Community-Based Advocacy-Focused Data-Driven Coalition-Building Association (CADCA) broke records this January at their Youth Leadership Forum in National Harbor, Maryland, bringing in 4300 attendees, four of whom are OCS high school students. 

Gayane Chambless, Orange Partnership for Alcohol and Drug Free Youth program director, said CADCA is “internationally known as the primary source for all things prevention when it comes to substance misuse among youth, mental health and they provide a ton of training every year.” 

Alyssa Judkins, Phoebe Mathews, Vidya Kasthuri, and Caroline Hall traveled by train with Chambless to the forum centered around Washington, DC, for an immersive experience with other youth leaders,national and international, which Kasthuri, a junior at Orange High School, said was one of the most exciting aspects.

“I was very excited to attend this conference, especially given that it would give me the opportunity to meet other youth leaders, and learn from other coalitions in the same field,” she said. “The other youth we met were incredible people, and I was able to learn so much from all the other coalitions in attendance about strategies they had implemented, and the results this yielded.”

Kasthuri is part of the Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention Team (ADAPT), a program that sends interns at Cedar Ridge and Orange High School to work with middle schoolers at Gravelly Hill and A.L. Stanback. ADAPT was first implemented locally about 10 years ago.

For Kasthuri, the opportunities and experiences she’s had with ADAPT so far have been “incredibly positive and gratifying ”, in large part because she and other ADAPT interns have been doing work that she believes will be very beneficial to the community. 

“Our first project with ADAPT was a series of peer interviews involving adults, parents, and students in the area,” she said. “From this we were able to survey the community’s perception of harm and general knowledge of substance use, which I believed inspired each of us in a different way.”

Working on community improvement projects, Kasthuri said, has been a great opportunity for her and other students to help each other with feedback and contributions for each other's work. 

Kasthuri’s internship with ADAPT has given her the chance to attend Orange Partnership coalition meetings which affords her the ability to be an advocate for the youth in the community. 

Although any students with ADAPT had an opportunity to apply for the CADCA trip, students outside the program were allowed to attend as well, which was the case for the two freshmen on the trip who weren’t even aware of the program. 

Phoebe Mathews, a freshman at Cedar Ridge, wasn't sure what to expect out of the CADCA forum. This was her first experience, and seeing how involved the youth were and the ways they were impacting their communities really stood out to her.

“In the sessions I attended, I saw youth as young as 6th grade stand up and present about what their coalition had done to increase prevention,” she said. 

The other freshman who attended from Cedar Ridge, Alyssa Judkins, said she felt very excited to learn more about issues harming the community and prevention techniques for the future. 

On the first day of the forum, the students participated in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) “[one of] the two largest federal administrations working on mental health,” Chambless explained, the other being the Center for Disease Control (CDC). 

It was actually a grant provided through SAMHSA that allowed for Orange Partnership to take the students on the trip to the leadership forum. 

SAMHSA Prevention Day consisted of about 90 small sessions that students could select prior to the trip, including  Policy Pioneers: Mastering Advocacy for Substance Use Prevention, What Now: Putting Your Actions in Plans and The Sober Truth about Marijuana

Kasthuri attended the “Policy Pioneers: Mastering Advocacy for Substance Use Prevention,” which she said was hosted by a high school senior and was really impactful to her. 

“It further demonstrated to me how much of an impact I can have on my community and others as a student/teenager,” she said. 

Participating in this workshop was very beneficial for her as it took place the day before she and the rest of the students met with Senator Thom Tillis and his staff. 

“This workshop took place the day we went to Capitol Hill to speak with legislators, and proved to be very useful in terms of aiding my development to the points I wanted to make, and how to present them for best results,” Kasthuri said.  

Prior to the forum, every state had a statewide meeting to prepare for a day on Capitol Hill, and the North Carolina meeting resulted in OCS students being selected to meet Tillis and staff. 

One of the topics that the students presented to Tillis and his staff was “mental health issues in relation to substance use, community perceptions of harm and the normalization of substance use that we have observed in our community,” Kasthuri said. 

Kasthuri, Mathews, and Judkins all felt their opinions were valued by Tillis and his staff,

“It was amazing to be able to talk to our legislators and be able to bring up our concerns,” Mathews said. “The staffers we met were very engaged and listened to our points, and it ended up being an incredible experience."

The students were supposed to meet with other legislators as well but “unfortunately there were some mitigating factors, one being Mark Zuckerberg showed up to apologize before Congress so everybody was wanting to be there for that and then a lot of events were happening on the [Capitol] Hill,” Chambless explained. 

All of the students expressed how they were inspired by seeing people their age (and younger!) advocating for themselves, for their fellow students and for their communities. 

“I want to thank everyone that worked to create this incredible experience. Thousands of people, adults, and youth attended this year – more than any other year. It was a huge feat to put on this event, and I am so grateful for everyone who worked to make it,” Mathews said.