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By Kendra Gravelle
Friendly shouts and whistles sounded across the campus of Bryant University as busloads of teens from all over the country were dropped off for a weekend of interactive activities and informative workshops.
Established in 1984 in Ohio, Youth to Youth is an initiative aimed at drug-prevention and leadership-building, explained Bob Houghtaling, director of Eastern States Youth to Youth and president of the East Greenwich Academy Foundation.
Houghtaling has been involved with Youth to Youth for 32 years, initially partaking in events hosted by the national organization, and eventually working to establish a regional chapter.
“Because we had such a critical mass here, we decided to do it here,” Houghtaling said. “We’ve been doing this event in Rhode Island since 1988.”
Each summer, Eastern States Youth to Youth runs the Eastern States Regional Conference — a four-day drug prevention and leadership conference.
“This is like our Super Bowl.”
The conference has been held at Bryant University for about 20 years, Houghtaling added.
Nearly 570 high school students attended the conference this year, making it the most well-attended thus far, Houghtaling said, adding that participants came from as far as the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
“The whole idea with the conference is that it’s a judgment-free zone,” explained Rob Lindberg, an administrative staff member. “So no matter where you’re from or what you do — if you’re in the band, science club, acting, track star — everybody comes, everybody’s equally accepted.”
Houghtaling explained that by combining exciting activities with important information, the conference has a meaningful impact on its participants.
“It’s not sitting in a room and saying, ‘don’t do drugs,’” he said. “What we realize is you’ve got to mix a little bit of fun, mix a little bit of information, give you an opportunity to meet new people and turn it into something that’s learning through participation.”
As the weekend got underway, Lindbergh, wearing a shark hat that covered half his face, waited with the rest of the staff, greeting both new and returning participants as they arrived.
“On the first day the new kids are a little standoffish,” explained Lindbergh, who has worked at the conference for five years. “By the end of the fourth day people are crying because they don’t want to leave.”
Sulina Mohanty of East Greenwich has been attending these conferences for years, originally as a high school student and now as a volunteer.
“I came to my first Youth to Youth conference 18 years ago,” she said. “I had no idea what I was getting into, but I came and met amazing people from all over and I learned so much about myself.”
She added that she was excited to reunite with other attendees she’s met at the conference over the years — some of whom come from outside the U.S. — and to have the opportunity to engage some of the first-year participants.
“Seeing the conference through their eyes for the first time — I’m really excited for them to have that experience.”
Robert Zenga, a senior at Chariho High School who lives in Hopkinton, has been attending the conference for five years, making the transition from participant to youth staff member this year.
“Coming to the conference for all these years has really helped me to get out of my shell and change who I am as a person,” Zenga said, “and I really like the person that I’ve become.”
He said that “family group” is his favorite part of the conference.
“It’s a group of people who become your family,” he explained. “You meet them and you’re able to tell them everything and you just get so close.”
Although Youth to Youth is, according to its website, uniquely teen-centered, there are plenty of opportunities for its alumni to participate in the conference — whether it’s as a volunteer or as an impact staff member.
“It’s essentially a place for college students who still want to be involved,” Kathryn Palmer, a member of the impact staff, said of the position.
Palmer, who lives in Cranston, said the friendships she’s made participating in the conference has brought her back year-after-year to “the best place on Earth.”
“It’s like a gigantic family,” she explained. “Everyone’s your best friend. Even if you don’t know them, they’re your best friend.”
And the bonds participants make at the conference tend to last.
“It’s not just like, you meet these people, become close and you leave,” explained Maggie Rodrigue, a youth staff member from East Greenwich. “You create those connections and you keep them.”
Brenda Mckinney, a high school student from East Greenwich, said she was especially looking forward to the color party.
“It’s like a big dance and they throw color on you,” explained Mckinney, who participated in Youth to Youth for the first time last year.
It’s no surprise that so many participants return each year. The feedback Houghtaling has received from the event has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.
It’s not just high school students and staff who come away from the conference smiling, either.
“I’ve got the best job on Earth,” Houghtaling said. “I get to see people who are committed to their community, I get to see kids who want to make an impact on the world, and they challenge you — and they challenge you in a really good way.”
And just as Palmer claimed, the family-like atmosphere was obvious as youth staff, administrative staff and participants were joking and laughing with one another like old pals within hours of this year’s Eastern States Regional Conference — or, perhaps more accurately, Super Bowl weekend.
“This is a drug-free Cheers,” Houghtaling said. “This is a place where everybody knows your name.”