While still in Grade 8, Roshanne Louis wasn’t feeling too hopeful about the future.
Most days, she skipped classes in favour of drinking and getting high.
But thanks to the Substance Abuse Awareness Modules (SAAM), Louis is back on track, and looking to a future she hopes will include art school.
“I was into drinking a lot, smoking weed every day and skipping out,” said Louis, 17. “I recognized I had a problem, and it would lead up to getting suspended or I’d get mad and fight and skip out of school.”
Now in its third year, SAAM is a treatment-readiness program offered through the Vernon School District’s Aboriginal Education Department and is designed to address participants who are in the pre-contemplative, contemplative and preparation stages of change.
Program facilitator Sandra Millar has her master professional in counseling psychology and her indigenous certified addictions specialist certification. But she also brings a unique perspective to students who are struggling with addiction.
“I was a heroin addict living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, and I cleaned up when I was 42,” she said. “Before I ended up on the downtown streets, I owned my own business in Vancouver. I’m proof that what happened to me can happen to anyone, even a successful business owner. I am also proof that anyone can get out of this cycle.
“It’s very hard to come out of addiction and when I finally got sober, it was very lonely, I couldn’t do anything that I thought was fun.”
Millar said the program is based on “what works” to change young people’s behaviour patterns. Focusing on aboriginal principles and healing, the program is designed to include the teachings of the medicine wheel and the Seven Teachings.
“There is a lot of sharing, a lot of debating, a lot of art work, and a lot of stuff that’s fun,” she said. “We’re trying not to create a school-like environment, we want to get the kids engaging with their peers.
“There is a lot of looking within, how does our use and behaviour affect ourselves and other people, how can we change so we are successful in our lives, at home and in school. We meet them where they’re at, there is no lecturing, it’s all about awareness, if you fill them full of information, they’re very capable of making up their own minds.”
Funded through the Ministry of Education’s targeted aboriginal education funding, the program runs 90 minutes twice a week for eight weeks, with four separate modules.
District substance abuse prevention counsellor Doug Rogers said it’s essential to tailor a program to each individual student, rather than with a one-size-fits-all treatment.
“From our perspective, we have various levels of care for all of our kids, some kids have different needs, and it’s better to find out what the needs are,” he said. “We sit down and look at best practices. This is not a punishment, it’s a consequence, to make these teachable moments, it’s a way to educate yourself that there might be better ways to deal with stress.”
Rogers said this district stands out from others in the province in what it is able to offer students who are struggling with substance abuse.
“We have a philosophy and it’s ownership: these are our kids, we can’t put them out on the streets. We want kids to know it’s not OK to use drugs.
“When I visit other districts, people are shocked by what we have here. We deal with despair and anxiety, but we have hope. I hope when Roshanne is 25 I’m buying a piece of her art that I can’t afford.”
District principal of aboriginal education Sandra Lynxleg said the program is open to all students, and that the end result of SAAM is not necessarily to have youth who have completely overcome drug and alcohol issues in their life. Rather, it is to prepare them to address these issues that are impacting their education and every day living.
“It’s to find the balance of being a whole person,” she said, adding that students can be referred to the program or they can volunteer themselves.
“Our goal is we want to keep Roshanne in school, and we’ve dedicated a lot of time to making that happen and making sure she’s a success. She came in kicking and screaming, but the fact that she’s come back for a third time is testament to her willingness to move ahead.”
Registered professional counsellor Corey Johnson is a key part of students’ post-treatment care, brought in after feedback from parents indicated that there was nothing to help students once they finished the program.
“We want to build the awareness to where they are with their use,” he said. “Once they come in, they tend to enjoy it because they learn something. The program is set up so students can attend, they get a ride home afterwards, our program really supports students.”
Rogers said as far as substance abuse problems go, this district is no different than any other place in the province.
“It’s a serious problem in this province, but we chose to do something about it,” he said. “We used to kick kids out for using drugs, but our philosophy, our core value is what would we do if it was my child? I’m going to educate my kid in a teachable moment, here’s a chance to show you another way, sometimes they are dragged kicking and screaming and they learn there are other kids suffering from anxiety, they have the fellowship and they feel better. And we have to replace the fun, as this is a process, not just an event. How do you define success? It’s different for everyone, but it’s a lot harder to get rid of a habit when you’re 20 than when you’re 15.”
Now attending the district’s Alternative Learning Program, Louis said she’s come a long way since her days as a Grade 8 student at Seaton.
“When I heard about the program, I thought I’d give it a chance. I didn’t like it at first, but now I’m now doing more homework, attending classes and my mom is really happy,” she said. “I made a promise to my boyfriend that we wouldn’t drink or smoke, we promised our families.
“School is still boring, but I go there every day because I want to eventually go to art school in Vancouver.”