At next month's aptly named Youth to Youth conference, high school students who are committed to a substance-free lifestyle will act as mentors for the middle schoolers attending the event.
"If negative peer pressure can make kids begin to use drugs and alcohol then positive peer pressure should be able to work, too. And it does," said Kim Gallagher, project director at Community Against Substance Abuse, a nonprofit coalition.
Youth to Youth is one of the initiatives of the coalition. The program's peer to peer approach has proven to be an effective way of getting the substance-free message out to kids.
"If an 18-year-old comes up to you - and you're 13 - and says, 'Stay away from that stuff, man, you don't need it,' that's way more powerful," said Scott Gerbert, programs and grants coordinator for the school district.
The all-day conference includes a keynote speaker, workshops, family groups, a drug panel, skits, a variety show, music and dancing.
Lauren Levenson, a sophomore at San Ramon Valley High School, has been involved with Youth to Youth since first attending the conference three years ago. She said the event has a strong impact on the middle schoolers who go.
"The whole conference in general leaves the kids with a strong message of 'This is what you can do without doing drugs' and 'Here are the terrors that drugs can cause in your life,'" said Levenson. "A lot of people don't want that to happen to them."
So is substance abuse really a big problem in the area?
"Fortunately, at the middle school level, our numbers are fairly low," said Gerbert, referencing an anonymous survey taken in October of more than 5,000 students in the district.
The survey showed that about 12 percent of seventh-graders and 34 percent of ninth-graders had consumed a full drink of alcohol. About 4 percent of seventh-graders had tried marijuana and about 3 percent had smoked a cigarette.
By the 11th grade, alcohol usage went up to 59 percent, according to the survey.
Gallagher said the San Ramon Valley has always had a slightly higher usage rate than the state and national averages, especially when it comes to alcohol use.
The 11th-graders surveyed claimed high stress levels as their main reason for drinking - taxing milestones like taking the SATs and college applications occur during that year, Gerbert pointed out.
"The academic stress level is higher in our community," he said. "It's not a discussion of 'are' you going to college, it's 'where are' you going to college. In our community that stress level is amped up a little bit."
As the survey numbers show, substance use isn't exactly prevalent among middle school students, and Gallagher said this can pose a challenge for getting parents to encourage their kids to attend the conference.
"They think, 'Oh, my kid isn't exposed to this,'" said Gallagher.
But the point, she said, is to prepare the youths to be able to make tough decisions about substances even before the issue comes up.
"We don't wait to get a cavity to start to brush our teeth," she said. "We don't wait for a toddler to stick a fork in a plug to say, 'Oh no, you shouldn't be doing that.' We prepare for everything else in our lives. Why wouldn't we prepare for this too?"
Choosing to be substance-free