COLUMBUS, Ohio – It started as a simple plea from one teen to another, then another, and another, and then to many others.
Do you have a stuffed animal that you could donate? It doesn’t have to be brand new – just one that you’re willing to give to help a child in need of comfort and support. The toys will be donated to local police stations so that officers can keep them in the back of their squad cars and could give them to a child when they arrive at the scene of a drug overdose and there are children there that may have witnessed the event.
This was the message from Callia Barwick, a 4-H member from Mahoning County, who organized a toy drive earlier this year as part of her work as a 4-H Health Hero. The program is offered by Ohio 4-H, the youth development program of Ohio State University Extension, which is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University.
The Health Heroes program teaches 4-H members to promote healthy living in their communities.
Barwick’s goal was to collect 100 stuffed animals. What she got instead was 1,500 donated toys.
She said she was spurred to take action to help in the fight against Ohio’s ongoing opioid crisis after attending “Hope for Ohio: Teen Forum on the Opioid Crisis,” held in December at Ohio State’s Columbus campus. The forum was sponsored by Ohio 4-H and other partners, including Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio FFA and Prevention Action Alliance, a Columbus-based certified prevention agency.
Barwick attended a session “on the opioid outbreak in Ohio and what steps (some are taking) to create a safer environment for children in these situations,” she said in a written statement.
“One step that a police station took was collecting stuffed animals to keep in the back of their cars; these stuffed animals could be given to children in these difficult situations,” she said. “I took this same idea and implemented it as a new 4-H project in my area.”
Barwick’s project is just one of several that 4-H members decided to take on after attending the teen opioid crisis forum, said Theresa Ferrari, a 4-H youth development specialist with OSU Extension.
“The teen forum was an opportunity to listen to teens and hear their concerns and thoughts about Ohio’s ongoing opioid epidemic,” Ferrari said. “It was designed to educate and prepare both teens and adults to take action against drug abuse in their communities.
“Teaching teens to take a leadership role in helping to prevent themselves and their peers from abusing opioids fits into what we do every day with 4-H: preparing young people to be leaders and to understand what is going on in their communities.”
Ohio’s ongoing opioid crisis is startling.
The Buckeye State is among the highest in the nation in drug overdose deaths, with a record 5,197 reported from October 2016 to October 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opioid drugs, including prescription painkillers and heroin, killed more than 33,000 people nationwide in 2015, more than any year on record, according to the CDC. There were 3,050 overdose deaths in Ohio in 2015, with about 6 out of 10 of the deaths blamed on the use of fentanyl and its derivatives, an opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, officials said.
And it’s not just adults.
Some 122,000 teens under age 17 and 427,000 adolescents between 18 and 25 had a pain reliever use disorder in 2015, according to a study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And 1 in 8 U.S. high school seniors in 2013 reported using opioids for nonmedical reasons, according to a 2015 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“One of our goals is to get teens to think about what’s going on around them, what resources are available to them on this issue and to hopefully be spurred to take action,” Ferrari said. “We want to help them to figure out for themselves if there is something they can do in their sphere of influence.
“Teens are looking for tangible things, and events such as the forum broaden their awareness about what some of the issues are. They realize that ‘This is around me and I can’t ignore it.’ We teach them about the advocacy process, so they are learning how to make things happen.”
As a result, at least 10 other 4-H members have implemented 4-H Health Heroes projects, both drug and non-drug related, in their communities, including:
- Miranda Tatom of Miami County, who is working with a local police department on a drug disposal drop box program and is organizing a school health day with fellow Ohio 4-H Health Heroes members.
- Ellen and Allison Riley of Delaware County, who presented information on the 4-H Health Heroes “Teaspoons of Sugar” educational kit. The kit provides information on how much sugar is in certain drinks.
- Allison and Lauren Thiergartner of Delaware County, who demonstrated a blender bike, which is a stationary bike that operates a blender when the rider pedals, at a recent YMCA Healthy Kids Day.
- Mary Ritter of Clark County, who developed a plan for a school garden at a local elementary school.
- Jennel Benson of Mahoning County, who presented the 4-H medicine cabinet display at multiple YMCA Healthy Kids Day events. The medicine cabinet display is a project of Ohio 4-H and was funded through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the National 4-H Council. It is a traveling display of a typical medical cabinet and features information on prescription drug and opioid abuse.
- George Rak of Medina County, who is featured in a National 4-H Council video for his work with the Wal-Mart Foundation-funded Healthy Habits program, which operates at the Lodi Family Center where he is a teen leader.
- Mikayla Lange of Pickaway County, who participated in a county 4-H health officer training event this spring.
- Lauren Preston of Fairfield County, who was interviewed by a local radio station in her community to talk about the work of 4-H Health Heroes.
“The fourth ‘H’ in ‘4-H’ stands for health, and this effort we’re doing with 4-H Health Heroes is all about health,” Ferrari said. “We know that teens can influence their peers, so we wanted to make sure that we can inspire them to take action – whatever it may be – when they get home to their communities.
“Promoting healthy lifestyles is a priority of Ohio State. It’s a thread that runs throughout everything that we do. We work hard to help youth find avenues to find their niche.”