When I was little, I wanted to be a superhero. I would wear a cape and imagine I was ridding the world of bad guys. Then, in fifth grade, I was introduced to Drug Abuse Resistance Education. At the end of the week, Officer Steve Abercrombie offered us the chance to write a DA.R.E. essay. The best essayist would win a beautiful D.A.R.E. jacket. It would be my very own superhero cape! I did not win that jacket. I watched as a fellow student walked up to the podium to receive his jacket. However, at the end of my ninth-grade year, my dream was realized and I became the D.A.R.E. representative for the state of California. This was it — I was Gianna Mousalimas, DAREGIRL! And after being appointed to the national youth board of D.A.R.E. America, I had my very own Justice League.
I am excited about the changes that have happened both in our city and around our nation as a result of my experience with D.A.R.E. When I was a sophomore, I attended the D.A.R.E. Youth Advisory Board National Conference in Quantico, Va. There, I was motivated to “pay it forward” in my own city. Under the direction of D.A.R.E. Officer Abercrombie, I initiated a pilot program called D.A.R.E. to Pay it Forward. Through the new program, high school students from Tracy, West, Kimball and Millennium high schools mentor recent fifth-grade D.A.R.E. graduates entering middle school with a twofold purpose: to help these students face challenges without turning to substance abuse and to encourage them to give back to a community that has given to them.
Camille Iacangelo from Kimball, Kyle Hall from Millennium and Taylor Delbridge from West joined me in introducing the concept to Ms. June Yasemsky’s fifth-grade graduating D.A.R.E. class at Hirsch Elementary School. The pilot program was optional, open to students whose parents supported their children participating in the mentor project. We added other D.A.R.E. graduates
from the Tracy and Jefferson school districts and from Millennium High School to make up the 16-member founding board. Mentors have been responsible for mentoring one to two students at a time and using texts, letters, social events and meetings to help build a strong relationship between themselves and their mentees. At this point, our board has expanded to include 20 members.
In middle school, students face a bigger world, and they don’t yet have the skills to handle either bully issues or drugs, or even just dealing with classroom changes and more challenging homework. We are there to talk them through their problems, help them out and teach them how to rely on their own strength to get through their challenges. But it’s the “pay it forward” part that makes this program exciting.
Our mentees participated in three D.A.R.E.-sponsored community service activities alongside their mentors, their part of paying it forward. In September, all school sites held a shoe drive to help out adults and children in Africa. The students sorted, packed and labeled over 5,000 shoes together with their mentors. In December, the students worked with Officer Abercrombie and the Brighter Christmas program, again offering help for community needs. In April, they participated in the ALS walk, a D.A.R.E. supported program, raising money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis awareness and aid. The idea is that these young sixth-graders will learn that helping others is the key to building a thriving community.
Our own board has also remained involved with the Tracy community through programs such as Case for Kids and the special-needs pageant Crowns and Cases. We have heard speakers from at-risk programs, such as the Sow a Seed Foundation, and our own understanding of need and involvement within our community has expanded.
This year, our board and Officer Abercrombie realized that there were more students within the community who were struggling with hardships, and we concluded that we needed to find more teens to participate. The goal was to create D.A.R.E. to Pay it Forward clubs at each high school, which would allow more contact with younger students in need. While the program is still building, the focus remains the same: Help others and they in turn will pay it forward.
I believe that our help doesn’t stop within our city limits. Since January, we have collaborated on revising and compiling the D.A.R.E. manual for youth representatives, focusing on D.A.R.E. curriculum, anti-bullying and school safety. This July, I was one of eight state representatives selected to represent D.A.R.E. youth at the international D.A.R.E. conference in Grapevine, Texas, where we presented our final product. Officer Abercrombie then challenged me to present our D.A.R.E. to Pay it Forward project to Director Frank Pegueros of D.A.R.E. America.
Mr. Pegueros challenged me to a dare of his own: Introduce the concept nationally. This October, I will share the idea with 10 state representatives at a workshop in Los Angeles. In November, I will present it to the national youth board at the Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters in Virginia.
The idea has already caught the attention of motivated people. At the international conference, three D.A.R.E. youth representatives — from North Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois — immediately understood the concept and all wanted to implement the program in their states.
I want D.A.R.E. to Pay it Forward to spread throughout the United States. It’s exciting to see the idea catch and to know that if we do something simple like help our youth out, they in turn will make good choices, pay it forward, help out the next person, and so on and so forth. I believe that we can really change the world and make positive changes just by helping one person at a time.
• Gianna Mousalimas, a Tracy High School senior, is a member of the Youth Advisory Board of D.A.R.E. America.