Five years in, Burrillville youth substance prevention group grows in number & influence

A hot trip: Seven students from Burrillville visited Texas last month for CADCA training.

BURRILLVILLE – Every Sunday evening, youth with the Burrillville Prevention Action Coalition meets at the Burrillville Police Department to plan initiatives based on community outreach, education and helping their peers lead a substance-free lifestyle.

Coordinator Monica Blanchette, who runs the program under the umbrella of the BPD, notes that an average of 11 kids attend the gatherings on a weekly basis. Soon, the meetings will be two hours long, and include an educational component at the request of the students involved.

Blanchette recently returned from a visit to Dallas, TX, where seven Burrillville students attended the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America’s annual training.

Some 30 students signed up for BPAC and attended at least two of the group’s meetings during the 2022/2023 school year, or helped out with various events and activities, dedicating their spare time to show commitment to a substance-free lifestyle.

It is an impressive show of progress for a movement that began in 2018, when Blanchette started the coalition with the help of just one Burrillville student, who was a member of SADD, at the time, the only prevention-focused option for town students.

“The increase in participation alone speaks volumes,” Blanchette said.

The effort to start both BPAC –  and a sister effort known as the Burrillville Addiction Assistant Program to help those struggling with addiction in town – began at the urging of Col. Stephen Lynch following a rash of overdose deaths. Once dubbed the overdose capital of the U.S. by some, Burrillville had dozens of drug-related incidents between 2015 and 2017, and Rhode Island was, at one point, the third worst state for overdose deaths per capita nationwide.

Forty one people in Burrillville were rescued or died from accidental overdoses between 2014 and 2018, when the town first implemented a comprehensive plan to combat the problem.

In the years since, Blanchette has been tasked with working directly with town youth, often referred to the organization by student assistance counselors.

This year, three students who have been active with BPAC since 6th grade – Mary Chenot, Hannah Silvia and Kaitlyn Fleming – will graduate from Burrillville High School. And Blanchette notes that the three are among at least seven long-time participants in the program who expect to receive diplomas next June.

“It’s been really cool to have this particular group of kids stick around with me,” Blanchette said, noting that the kids have helped to guide the learning and growth process for the organization. “This is a big thing for me.”

This year, at Youth Driven, an annual statewide event focused on safer driving practices and the dangers of impairment, six Burrillville students attended, and two – Chenot and Silvia – got to serve as leaders.

“Being a leader was probably the best experience I ever had with that program,” said Silvia at a meeting last week with the larger BPAC group of both youth and adults in the community. “I really enjoyed my time, and I definitely will go back next year.”

“The desire to normalize substance-free activities is a big thing for a lot of kids,” said Blanchette, noting she has heard from some graduating seniors that they wished they joined BPAC sooner. The current crop of students, she notes, have expressed a desire to focus on larger issues related to substance abuse, such as mental health and coping with stress without drugs or alcohol. “It’s not just, ‘don’t do drugs.'”

Asked if she’s worried about the future of BPAC Youth after the active group graduates, Blanchette notes that she’s been working with a current group of middle-schoolers, “who are keen on outperforming the high school students.”

“The middle school (kids) now have ideas, and they’re ready to plan just as many initiatives for their peers,” she said.

Blanchette notes she’s also proud of the work done by BPAC adults, a coalition made up of local educators, first responders and representatives from varying sectors who hope to contribute to addressing substance abuse and prevention issues.

“Our coalition, in my biased opinion, is the very best coalition out there,” she said, noting that more than 10 members attended a recent mid-summer meeting amid vacations and beach days. “That, to me, speaks volum\es about our coalition, our community, and how many people care about the welfare of Burrillville.”

This fall, on Sunday, Nov. 12 the organization will hold their fifth 5K, a walk/run that serves as the largest fundraiser for student scholarships.

This time around, she notes, there are many Burrillville teens who are deserving.

“They’re just awesome kids,” Blanchette said.

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