November 1, 2018

How Kids Are Helping Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse in WNC

By Karen Vernon

What if we could leverage the energy, creativity and passion of youth to change the world?

That’s exactly one focus of Partners Aligned Toward Health (PATH), which has been working since 1997 to implement initiatives to improve the health of children and families in Mitchell and Yancey counties.

PATH starts by identifying the community’s most pressing health needs that are identified in our region’s Community Health Needs Assessments. Working with community partners – including Mission Health – PATH helps design and implement health initiatives tailored to their community. The focus? Long-term, sustainable change.

In 2009, a group of physicians approached PATH to ask for help in building awareness about the growing problem of prescription drug abuse in the community. With help from these stakeholders, along with local elected officials, PATH worked with the community to form the Mitchell Yancey Substance Abuse Task Force (MYSATF) and began exploring ways to advocate and educate people about this critical health issue.

This is where the kids come in. Seeking to get upstream and approach the issue from the perspective of prevention, PATH received funding from Mission Health to create advocacy groups in four local middle schools. The grant supports the facilitation of youth-led groups as they work to build participants’ capacity to advocate on behalf of substance abuse prevention while also developing lifelong leadership skills.

Calling themselves Appalachian Youth to Youth, the student groups have put their ideas into action and advocacy for their communities. They’ve created a series of videos for students and parents, an award-winning social media campaign and a local newspaper Health Page that offers adults resources about how to talk with their children about drugs. But that’s not all: the kids put on a skit about medication safety (featuring Samantha Skunk!) for local elementary students. One of the students, Aurelia, said, “My favorite thing to do in the community was Samantha Skunk. We got to dress up and put on the play at Greenlee Elementary School. We were able to teach little kids about medication safety. What we taught them could actually save someone’s life!”

“It’s all about engaging the kids in crafting their messages,” Ashly Maag of Mission Health’s Community Investment team said of the skit. “The middle school students were empowered by what they learned in their peer group and were eager to share it with the elementary students.”

Other more targeted initiatives have included:

  • Regional planning with other youth coalitions to address barriers that keep youth from being happy, healthy and productive in their community
  • Partnering with UNCA to complete environmental scans to identify and raise community awareness regarding the ways that alcohol and tobacco are being marketed and targeted toward youth
  • Planning and advocacy with local elected officials to help their schools become truly smoke-free campuses
  • A program to put stickers on cases of beer at local retailers to warn buyers to stop and consider the consequences before providing alcohol to minors
See the kids in action on November 3-4, as the Appalachian Youth to Youth will be joining forces with six additional youth coalitions and partners in the region to host their first summit focused on substance abuse prevention – Own It: The Power of You – at Kanuga Conference Center in Henderson County.

“We’re so grateful for the funding and support from Mission Health Community Investment,” said Schell McCall, Executive Director of PATH. “It has enabled us to develop and grow these youth advocacy programs in our middle schools, supporting our students as leading change agents for substance abuse prevention in our community as well as increase the knowledge, skills and capacity of our Mitchell Yancey Substance Abuse Task Force coalition members.”

Mission Health’s Community Investment Program awarded $890,000 in funding to a diverse group of 17 western North Carolina agencies in 2018, in a joint effort to improve the health of those served by Mission Health across the region. The 2018 focus areas for the grants are Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse, Chronic Disease, Social Determinants of Health (focusing on food security and homelessness) and Interpersonal Violence.
To learn more about Mission Health’s Community Investment Program, visit