Mendenhall River Elementary School students, from left to right, Alexis Weissmuller, Allison Rivera, Jahrease Mays, Tosh Robbinson and Kendyl Carson work on their essays for the upcoming Red Ribbon Week, a national week of awareness about the benefits of being drug-free.
Mendenhall River Elementary School counselor Tristan Berkey prepares class materials in preparation for national Red Ribbon Week.
Story last updated at 10/17/2012 - 1:57 pm
A group of yawning and cowlicked fifth-graders entered Tristan Berkey's classroom in the Mendenhall River Elementary School at 8:15 a.m. on Oct. 9.
Berkey, 31, is the school's counselor. In preparation for the national Red Ribbon Week, Oct. 23-31, which serves to promote the message of "drug-free," she was having her students work on several assignments.
During an earlier visit, Berkey had the students brainstorm about what goes in to leading a healthy life.
"They did a lesson on healthy choices and what they need to keep their bodies and minds healthy," Berkey said. "Some kids wrote down swimming, playing with family, dog walking, exercising."
She had cut out red and white paper hearts for the students to write down their ideas and examples. The hearts will be hung up during the Red Ribbon Week, along with those completed by the other students in the school.
The second task, an optional one, which around half of the almost 30 students in this class chose to take on, was a 100-word or less essay. The essay is a contest sponsored by TSS, Inc., a drug screening and substance abuse prevention company. The essay theme is, "The best me is drug free," and students were encouraged to describe what being drug-free means to them.
"The Red Ribbon Week celebration is a great tie-in for students who don't get the best drug prevention education," Laura Steele, of TSS said. "It's important to recognize that kids who have an early and an ongoing conversation about drugs and alcohol are better able to face the difficulties of growing up in a world where those things are prevalent, and give them the ability to stand up for themselves and say 'no' and make the right decisions."
To the students who had previously begun their essays, Berkey instructed, "I'd like you to read them, and have a friend read them. We're moving into our second draft. We're editing right now."
One student approached her about the use of a particular word. Berkey logged on to an online dictionary website with the student and asked, "Do you want to know the meaning of it, or do you want to learn how to spell it?"
The students sat clustered in groups along the perimeter of Berkey's chair-less classroom, intently clutching pencils. Ten-year-old Cole Mitchell was happy to share about his work.
"I'm writing basically on steps for a drug free life, for people who don't do drugs and people who do do drugs," Mitchell said. He had broken his suggestions into steps. Step one: resist. "If people do it resist it, they'll lose the habit." Mitchell's second step is to exercise. "If you exercise, the effects of taking drugs will eventually simmer down."
He was working on writing down his next steps, to eat healthily, greens and lean meat, and to be on your guard. He explained that he lost a loved one when he was eight years old to substance abuse.
"It was pretty tough on me," he said. "Nobody is invincible to drugs."
Classmate Allison Rivera explained that as an athlete, she wants to make a pledge to never abuse drugs.
"I want to be a professional swimmer and I want to be in the Olympics and if I do drugs I won't be able to do that," Rivera said. "(They) could damage every part of your body."
Many of the students have seen the negative effects that substance abuse can have on their lives.
"Some students have a strong understanding of what drugs are and how they affect people," Berkey explained. "Some kids have no idea. I like to focus on how it's a time to make healthy choices."
Jahrease Mays said he has seen and heard about a lot of people who have died from drug abuse.
"I think it's bad," Mays said. "That's why I want to do this, just to tell them to stop." He was fashioning his assignment in the form of a poem.
The noise level began to rise as 9 a.m. approached, the end of the class. Berkey rang a bell.
"Were you intensive listeners?" she asked her students. "Were you respectful? Did I have to ask anyone to leave? We had a great day today."
Berkey said she was very grateful that the Juneau School District provides fulltime elementary school counselors, explaining that they are mostly utilized and associated with high schools.
"I think I have the best job in the world," Berkey said proudly. " I love being able to work with all of the students, not just the ones having a rough time or needing more help with social skills, but I get to see all of the student population."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.