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Providing hope: National grant brings addiction prevention programs to Brainerd Lakes schools

Advocates say this level of substance use prevention support is needed by young people in Greater Minnesota. While teens in rural communities struggle with the impact of substance use in levels similar to those in the Twin Cities, support programs in the region are few and far between.

Talia Brodhead, right, community engagement coordinator for MnPRA and program coordinator for BLADE, and Rosie Jensen, a volunteer in recovery who shared her story with students at Brainerd Learning Center on October 16
Talia Brodhead, right, community engagement coordinator for MnPRA and program coordinator for BLADE, and Rosie Jensen, a volunteer in recovery who shared her story with students at Brainerd Learning Center on October 16.

Starting when she was 14, Talia Brodhead struggled with addiction. These days, with seven years in recovery under her belt, she shares her story with young people as a community engagement coordinator for Minnesota Prevention and Recovery Alliance’s Know the Truth (KTT), a substance use prevention program designed for teenagers and young adults. 

In recent weeks, Brodhead has been able to take her message to students and parents at Brainerd Learning Center, thanks to a federal Drug-Free Communities grant, combined with a matching donor grant, that was awarded to the Crow Wing County Brainerd Lakes Area Drug Education (BLADE) Coalition. The grants provide a total of $250,000 per year for five years to support youth substance-use prevention efforts in the region. 

At Brainerd Learning Center, Brodhead gave classroom presentations for students and, during conferences, led an informational meeting for parents. She’s also taken opportunities to get to know the center’s students in a less-formal manner, sitting down with them at lunch and sparking in-depth conversations about addiction and its impact on their young lives. 

Those lunchtime conversations with students, Brodhead said, “really opened up the door. What I’m seeing is that children from 9th to 12th grade are already experiencing addiction, substance use and parents that are currently using or have been to treatment in the past.” 

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She’s been able to share her own story with students whose parents’ addiction has forced them into taking on adult roles in their families. “They are raising their own siblings,” Brodhead said, noting that this mirrors her own experience. The KTT approach of supporting students through open, truthful mentorship is particularly helpful, she added: “Our ability to go in there and let students know that we are aware of what they are going through, what they’ve already been exposed to, is so important. I’ve had similar experiences, and I want them to know that my heart is for them.”

This level of substance use prevention support is needed by young people in Greater Minnesota, said Elle Braland, KTT student engagement manager. While teens in rural communities struggle with the impact of substance use in levels similar to those in the Twin Cities, support programs in the region are few and far between. 

“We’re trying to expand our program to outstate areas because there is such limited access to these support services,” Braland said. “In the metro area, there are so many different avenues for student support, whether it’s treatment, school programming, different initiatives. What we’re seeing in areas like Brainerd is that there are not many of these opportunities.” 

Jessica Haapajoki, Brainerd Learning Center principal, said she’s seen addiction impact her students in a number of ways. “We see it in a pretty consistent daily basis. Some of them can’t get to school  on time because their parents can’t provide transportation. Or their own usage and partying too much  on a school day means they can’t make it to school.”  

For many students, Haapajoki said, substance use is, “getting in the way of their daily lives and functioning, their ability to hold jobs and earn credits toward graduation and ultimately an on-time graduation. It is consistently impacting our kids starting at a pretty young age.”

She thinks that her school’s partnership with KTT may help students see that recovery is an option, and ongoing support from mentors like Brodhead could help them see that they have the power to make change in their own lives. 

“There’s a definite need for education, support, recovery for our teens,” she said. “I think Talia is on the right path with us. She’s getting to know the kids, spending time with them one-on-one.” That more concentrated approach is different than the “once-and-done” anti-drug presentations that usually stop by the school, she added: “The more someone’s around, the more they share their time, the more willing kids are going to be to talk and trust and really listen to what they have to say.” 

Mentorship connections

Founded in 2006, Know the Truth is focused on providing prevention education and services to youth, parents, educators and community members through personal stories of recovery and collaborative educational trainings. 

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Those trainings largely take the form of classroom presentations about addiction and recovery, Braland said, explaining that KTT’s person-centered approach makes the program unique:  “They are not at all what a drug presentation was in the past. We utilize people who are in recovery and are younger in relationship to the students.” 

Rather than stunning students with a “scared straight” approach, KTT presenters, Braland explained, “take more of a mentor approach. They are able to share their story in the classroom in the context of, ‘These are the choices I made. This is where it led me. Maybe take what I’ve shared and consider your own choices now.’” By taking this approach, mentors build stronger connections with students, she added. “They talk about what their life is like in recovery. They share coping skills they use.” 

The “truth” part of Know the Truth comes from the program’s focus on honestly educating young people about substance use and busting myths around addiction and recovery, Braland said. 

“In the classroom we not only share those personal stories of lived experience but we also talk about different substances more with the approach of, ‘What do you already know?’ ‘What have you heard about it from your peers, your older siblings, your parents? Then we step back and learn the truth.” 

So far, the KTT has scheduled presentations in all of the Brainerd Lakes District schools. The program’s goal with this grant funding is to offer expanded youth support services in the district, including peer support groups and one-on-one support services led by certified peer support specialists.  

“To our knowledge, we are the only organization in Minnesota providing this kind of service,” Braland said. “We saw that peer support work was so effective with adults and it’s become such a standard of practice in the recovery field so we were like, ‘Why don’t we do that with youth?’”

In other districts, KTT peer support programming is offered as an alternative to suspension programs for students, Braland said: “We’re often offered in place of punitive measures.” This sends a good message, she added: “The school is saying, ‘We want to support our students so that they can start making healthier choices for themselves.’”

In many schools, a range of students attend KTT peer support programs. “We have students who come to our groups who may have been caught at school using vape products, marijuana or things like that so the school is asking them to come see us,” Braland said. “We’re also seeing students who have self-identified untreated addiction issues. And we are also seeing students who are already in recovery who are looking for a place to find continued support and students who experience substance use by loved ones.”

All KTT programs, including peer support programming, are built around a trauma-informed approach to care. “We understand that our students are coming from a variety of backgrounds, that they have different experiences,” Braland said. “Even when our presenters are sharing their own stories, it’s done in a trauma-informed way. We don’t want to scare students or re-traumatize them. We want to have an open, safe space for young people to talk about these issues.” 

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‘Seeds that are being planted’

Haapajoki  has been in education for 26 years, with 13 of those years spent at Brainerd Learning Center. She said she’s concerned about changes she’s seen in the mental health of young people over the last few years. “I’d say that the majority of the kids that are coming to me now are struggling with their mental health: anxiety, depression, addiction.” These kids need help, Haapajoki believes, and she’s in search of ways to provide that for them: “I’m hopeful that Know the Truth will be the kind of support they really need.” 

Braland said KTT’s youth-forward approach speaks to students in a way that other programs usually don’t.  Young people, she explained, “want to hear from somebody who understands the world they are growing up in. They want adults who care about them. But they also want to hear from young adults who can be open and honest with them about these big issues.” Having a mentor like Brodhead, someone whose experiences mirror their own, is especially helpful, she added.

Brodhead said that so far, her conversations with students at Brainerd Learning Center feel helpful and productive. When it comes to talk about vaping, for instance, students often skirt around the truth, but after spending time in honest conversation, the mood shifts:  “At first, they are trying to hide the fact that they vape,” she said. “Then, by the end of the conversation, once we’ve had time to really talk about issues, they’re like, ‘How would I quit?’ I’m like, ‘Let’s figure it out.’” This kind of mentorship, these open conversations are, she said, “seeds that are being planted. We are still at the beginning of the year, but I think we’re really going to do amazing things here.” 

She’s confident that sharing the story of her own teenage struggles will help students open up and ask for help. In her classroom presentation, Brodhead said, “I started by asking, ‘Who struggles with mental illness, depression, anxiety, not fitting in?’ That’s where it started for me, when I started stealing cigarettes to fit in and then smoking weed. It was a short-term fix, a Band-Aid, but it increased all of that anxiety and depression and self-harm.’”

Students have responded positively to this approach, Brodhead said. When she sat down with a group over lunch, she said she asked, “‘When you’re hearing that from me, is it resonating? Do you understand that no one is thinking at 14 when they are getting high with their friends that they are going to end up in prison or on meth or heroin?’”  

She was “taken aback,” she said, by the students’ reactions: “They were saying, ‘I see a strong, empowering individual talking to us right now, providing hope.’ I think that was the best. I think that my message is really getting across.”