"I love helping people
because when I was
I always had that
George Lopez, Parent and Community Relations Specialist
Weslaco School District
Widespread poverty, acceptance of drug use, and proximity to the Mexican border all contribute to the elevated rates of adolescent drug use and risk taking in Weslaco, Texas. The spring-break season in particular is a period when many students are drawn to Mexico to engage in drinking, drug-taking, and promiscuity.
Coordinator of Student Support Services, Julie Majors, at the Weslaco school district, and Community Relations Specialist George Lopez put their heads together to develop a plan that focused on the strengths—not the risk factors—of the community to address the challenges faced by Weslaco children and families.
They began by asking themselves, What is a major strength of our community? The answer, they believed, was social capital—a concept that recognizes the value of social networks that are built on trust, norms, and reciprocity and that foster mutual assistance among community members. The concept of social capital would shape their work.
George, himself an immigrant from Mexico, says, “I love helping people because when I was growing up, I always had that support system. It stemmed from the schools having a strong network to help us.”
Julie and George soon partnered with a strong advisory board in Weslaco—made up of community agencies—that is deeply invested in helping youth. After assessing the community’s needs, the partners decided to organize a Community Youth Rally, which would help fill the need for fun, free, and safe entertainment for the whole family—something that their data showed was lacking in the community. But most importantly, they would use the rally to promote “strength building” and to reduce AOD use among youth and adults.
Key elements of the rally were planned as catalysts for community improvement:
- Vision. When asking for support, as George says, “You can’t only sell the event—you must sell the vision behind the event.” Framing the event as beneficial to the whole community helped the planners gain the support they needed.
- Timing. The rally was timed just before spring break to drive home a prevention message. Youth were asked to sign a pledge not to engage in alcohol or other drug use during their break.
- Service awareness. To increase residents’ awareness and use of social services, community service providers were a prominent feature at the rally.
- Community involvement. Local libraries, churches, schools, and service agencies lent their facilities and/or services to the event. Church vans transported the elderly, schools lent their parking lots, and school district ROTC students provided security and safety oversight. Vendors contributed food and drink for the event without hesitation.
- Active roles for youth. Performances by student groups were a prominent highlight of the rally. In addition, a Mentoring Mile, populated by signs displaying local statistics on drug use and risk behaviors, was set up to promote education about AOD issues and parent-child communication. Youth signed up to walk the Mile with their parents and thus took the lead in education and discussion of the topic.
Julie reports that after the rally, service use went up, especially by women in the community. She suspects that this also indicates a decline in the stigma associated with help-seeking. In addition, there was a post-rally decline in spring break fatalities.
Julie and George quickly realized that the rally tapped Weslaco’s strong commitment to programming that is beneficial to its residents—a form of social capital in itself. In fact, the Community Youth Rally was so successful, it is now an annual event.