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By Shannon McLoud
In a country facing an opioid epidemic it’s comforting to know that here in Rhode Island there are people working for change. Change isn’t something that happens overnight, or something that can just be put into a slogan hoping young adults will catch on. Change begins with education. July 28th-31st saw the seeds of change nestled in the picturesque campus of Bryant University as hundreds of young people came together for the Youth to Youth Eastern Conference. And if this is the first time you’re hearing of this conference, you’re missing out on something really special, right here in Smithfield.
Youth to Youth began in Central Ohio in 1982, and by 1989 the Eastern Conference was created thanks to the leadership of Robert Houghtaling, director of the East Greenwich Drug Program. The East Greenwich Drug Program started as a one man operation in 1984 by Houghtaling. He looked for ways to reach kids because as he puts it “who wants to hang with a drug counselor?” Youth to Youth International proved to be the needed outlet, and after a few years of traveling to Ohio for it, it just made more sense to Houghtaling to bring Youth to Youth to the Ocean State. Since that thought, the conference has been held at various locations within the state, but for the last 18 years it has been held at Bryant University. Houghtaling, describes the event as “our Super Bowl” where students from not only the Eastern states, but as far reaching as the Cayman Islands and Jamaica will spend four days learning about positive choices. “It’s not just sitting around telling people not to do drugs” Houghtaling says, “It’s a way to connect.”
Besides the national conference, the Eastern States Conference is the largest one for the organization, this year’s conference drew 550 young adults to Bryant’s campus to learn not only that it’s okay to say no to drugs, but as Harrison put it “Softer skills, the development of sympathy and empathy.” Something that anyone could get behind.
Walking around the conference you can get a sense of what the conference is really all about. Coming together for a common cause. Ty Sells has been with the organization since 1985, and is a 30 year employee of the organization. He along with northern Rhode Island resident Marc Harrison were both involved as students. “We didn’t know this was going to happen” Sells explained gesturing to the enormity of what is around them as groups of teens bustled off to hear the keynote speaker for the evening. “It’s been fun watching the conference grow, along with Bryant University” Harrison chimed in. Sells, Houghtaling, and Harrison were quick to point out that even when the college hosted the New England Patriots, they treated the conference with tremendous respect, and were wonderful to work with.
The work doesn’t end on Bryant’s campus, it is a continual process, almost a lifestyle. In fact a major point of the conference is to have the kids evolve and take over aspects of the conference. Although the majority of the conference is adult coordinated, the conference has about 40 youth volunteering alongside 40 adults. They come to the conference as participants, and then have the opportunity to apply to work. Youth to Youth will check back into the teen’s community to see that they are making a positive impact in their community. If that checks out, they can run the family groups at the Eastern Conference. The adult volunteers? Many take vacation days to attend the conference and volunteer their time. The Eastern Conference gives them a time to slow down and re-establish what matters. The Youth to Youth Eastern Conference is truly the original “no judgment zone” and as Harrison points out participants will “bring that non judgment back to their community.” When we’re not judging, we’re open to listening, and anyone who has taken a scroll through social media lately can attest to the fact that as a society, we all could use a lesson in listening more.
Details have not been released regarding next year’s conference, but bookmark their website at www.youthtoyouth.net for updates!