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Distress Centre Calgary / 50 Stories  / 50 Stories Part 18: High Hopes – The Youth Drug Line

50 Stories Part 18: High Hopes – The Youth Drug Line

With its roots as a Drug Information Centre, Distress Centre has always had addiction support as a mandate. In September of 1990, as part of the desired expansion of services, there was a return to the use of young recovering addicts via the start-up of a new Youth Drug Line (YDL). As Jeanette noted, drug programs that worked for adults did not necessarily work for youth, and something different was needed to engage them.

Katie Black, then Teen Programs Co-ordinator, recalls:

Youth Drug Line volunteers in the early ’90s.

“I don’t know if the frequency or intensity of drug utilization was really on the increase, but the public concern about youth drug use was on the rise. The Parent Resource Institute in Drug Education was deeply concerned. It was quite a strong lobby to the provincial government. We had provincial funding through AADAC, so we proposed that we could be part of the solution. The Executive Director would have done the funding pitch, but I ended up presenting to AADAC on my research when I was a grad student. My hypothesis was that the experience of supporting other people would be part of addicts’ own journey of recovery.”

Paul Jerry, first coordinator, describes the volunteer recruiting process:

“From our counselling case loads, initially we recruited and then it was sort of snowball style. They would find their friends and anybody that was interested. The focus was on kids and drugs on the calls, and we ran a group to keep them on the straight and narrow.

“It was six months clean or sober, and we just interviewed and guessed the best we could. They did the standard Distress Line training, so we could see how that went. We asked for six or eight months. If they survived that commitment, we knew we had someone who might last for a little while. Once a week we ran a group in the evenings for the volunteers.”

The one-year pilot

Paul Jerry, Drug Line Coordinator, in a 1994 newspaper.

The Minerva Foundation funded a one-year pilot for $20,000, along with another $3600 for publicity. Input was requested from high school students as to their needs, through mall conversations and high school newspapers. There was short-wait professional counselling and a community education program available. It opened Sept 15, 1990, with 6 recovering addicts ages 16-25 answering the phone number 269-Drug from 6 pm to 11 pm, seven days a week. FCSS funded the second half of 1991, and the Burns Foundation the first half of 1992, followed by United Way funding for counselling.

Paul describes the operation:

“The phone room was divided with a half wall between them. The adults were on one side, and the Teen Line and Youth Drug Line which had one little booth, was on the other side. You had the bad-ass drug people mixing with the really good squeaky-clean teens. We actually kept a closer eye on them than most people knew. We had one person who would dress up as Ella Fitzgerald, and one night he started singing and he blew everyone away. Normally, people were pretty serious and wanting to help and as the phones were ringing, and there was Ella Fitzgerald singing on the other side of the wall.”

Jennifer Raymond, now a psychologist, was answering Teen Line calls beside them:

''There we were, all off of the turnip truck, with people the same age who had interesting histories. I really liked them all, but you could tell they were people who were more used to taking risks than we were.'' - Jennifer Raymond

In October of 1992, Premier Don Getty who had a son with a drug issue endowed the Alberta Family Life and Substance Abuse Foundation (AFLSA). They gave an initial $20,000 to enhance and integrate the Teen Program and Drug Program into an expanded Youth Program. Premier Ralph Klein later eliminated the Foundation, but financial support from them continued through the first half of 1995.

Public education

By 1993, seventeen volunteers had completed or were in the program, answering more than 2,000 calls since start-up. 114 Parent-Youth Drug Abuse Prevention Seminars offered a program of three weekly sessions, and a two-part public education program in schools used YDL volunteers to give personal testimonies.

Paul Jerry remembers the first presentation:

''We got them talking about how (their drug use) began, what influenced them, how much worse it got over time, and how they got out of it. That was very therapeutic for them as well.'' - Paul Jerry

“We took a horribly outdated fake drug kit with us – the kids just kind of laughed. Having the volunteers speak was one of the bigger successes. We got them talking about how it began, what influenced them, how much worse it got over time, and how they got out of it. That was very therapeutic for them as well. It was always interactive. The kids would ask how much did you take, did you get fried, how high were you? We tried to give it structure so it didn’t become a ‘this was my wild and crazy life and drugs are fun’ sort of story.”

A picture from a 1994 newspaper article on the Youth Drug Line.

Blair Collins, the second coordinator, notes the continuing growth of the line:

“By the time I took over, Distress Centre had a really excellent reputation for addiction prevention presentations in the high schools. We were contacted directly by teachers to come in and speak to their classes. Some years two or three days of my time was spent going into classrooms. Not all my volunteers were from the drug line, but I had a small number that were.

“For the teens in recovery, it gave them continued support. Not only by staffing the lines, but every two weeks we had an hour support group where we would come together and people could share their personal struggles. As well, we would talk about some of the issues that were being presented to them on the youth drug line. We would talk about the skills needed to address those issues, and identify what information would provide support. The success rate for people in recovery was excellent. For the most part people did not disappear because of relapse, they moved on to other things.”

The Wild Rose Foundation funded the Youth Drug Line for the second half of 1995 and a 2 to 5 pm shift was added. 71 presentations had a drug line volunteer accompanying, and aftercare support was offered to 37 volunteers. Over time, drugs at the elementary school level emerged as a new area of concern as did hot-boxing (individuals gathering together in small unventilated spaces to smoke marijuana).

The success of peer support

1998 brought a new video for presentations when there was no volunteer available, and a city-wide poster contest to advertise the Teen and Youth Drug Lines. The YDL was considered very successful, both for callers and for the recovering addicts who operated the lines. Ginette, a volunteer and former user, reflected in the AADAC publication Zoot Capri on her successes, noting “Compassion can’t come from books; it has to come from within, from someone who knows what she or he is talking about.”

Youth Drug Line volunteers in 1995.

Paul Jerry offers a final anecdote for this story, exemplifying his experience of working with this particular group of volunteers:

“We did a Christmas volunteer banquet at the Delta Hotel one year. It was typical hotel, but swankier than the typical drug line volunteer was used to. We sat them all at one table and sat with them, and you could kind of tell this was a different world for them. They were jittery and anxious and a little louder than they should have been.

“On the way to the car, one of them comes up to me and says, we got you something. It was an entire place setting from the table. I still have a fork. It was actual silver, the bread plate, the dinner plate, the champagne flute, two forks, a knife, two spoons. In the back of your head you are thinking they just stole stuff for me, that’s not cool. On the other hand, from a clinical point of view, they thought about somebody other than themselves, they planned it, organized it, orchestrated it, it was a team effort, and this is actually what we are trying to get them to do. I decided to just go with it. Every time I use that fork, I think about that night.”

Distress Centre is sharing a story every Tuesday in 2020 for 50 weeks to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. We hope you will join us on this journey. All stories can be found here.

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