For Senior Roman Kalaczinski, any experience that allows him to interact with students in younger grades is an opportunity he enjoys. So when he heard about Project Charlie, a program that teaches young students the dangers of substance abuse and provides them with the skills to overcome peer pressure, he was excited to be a part of the teaching.
Since 1981, Project Charlie has been the Forest Hills District’s substance abuse prevention program and is currently being taught to students of elementary age all the way up to middle schoolers. In Elementary schools, students are taught by their school counselors, and in the 5/6 buildings, high school students serve as student facilitators.
Mary Vonk, one of the people in charge of overseeing the whole operation in this area, has been involved in this program since 2004 when she was trained and taught in second and fourth grade classrooms for a number of years. But the true evolution of Project Charlie happened when Vonk’s daughter applied to serve as a Project Charlie Student Facilitator at FHN.
“Prior to that time, I had no idea student facilitators were teaching the curriculum; I was instantly intrigued,” Vonk said. “Trained adults like me were asked to support the high school student facilitators in the classroom, so I was able to see the magic in action right away. I immediately proposed expanding this methodology to the other two high schools, [and] we began recruiting student facilitators from FHE in 2014 and FHC in 2015.”
To this day, high school students are involved in teaching young students. It is no fluke that this program is implemented into the students’ lives at a very young age. Numerous studies have shown that early education and awareness can significantly lessen the likelihood of substance abuse throughout life.
Roman first became involved in teaching Project Charlie to fifth and sixth graders at Central Woodlands in his sophomore year after learning about it from past students and has loved the experience enough to continue it all the way through his senior year.
“I think the kids just enjoy learning,” Roman said. “We only teach the fifth and sixth graders, so we’re kind of in the younger end. I don’t think they necessarily get the severity and necessity of what we’re teaching them, but I definitely think it’s a good intro for when they come back and do Project Chuck (a more advanced version of the program) in seventh grade, so they have that base information of stuff that they learn.”
Over the course of three lessons, the students are taught the contents of the project. The catchy name “Charlie” is an acronym for “Chemical Abuse Resolution lies in Education.” The high school facilitators work to educate the students about this topic as they follow the lesson plans covering important topics.
As anyone could imagine, fifth and sixth graders can be quite animated when getting the opportunity to interact with older students, and that is one aspect that Roman has certainly enjoyed.
“I think my favorite lesson to teach is the one where we roleplay trying to peer pressure the kids into taking drugs,” Roman said. “I like it because they come up with the most outlandish responses to say no, and it’s really funny to hear because obviously, they’re trying to impress their classmates so they try and come up with the stupidest things you can think of. I think that’s where a lot of my good memories come from.”
Sophomore Sloane Corey agrees that working with kids and seeing their growth while learning about the important topics is something so cool to see.
“Interacting with kids that age [has been my favorite part] because when I was their age, I didn’t realize how young I was,” Sloane said. “When you go back to [previous] schools, you realize you were actually really young.”
Another bonus for the high school students that go through Project Charlie training is that it gives them a nice refresh on the information and the opportunity to grow themself.
Sometimes there is no better way to learn the information yourself than to teach others, and Project Charlie certainly lives up to that notion.
“I have also learned a lot not only teaching other kids, but even learning new things myself,” Sloane said.
It’s such a privilege for the 5th and 6th graders to be taught by students who serve as older role models, and 5th-grade teacher at Central Woodlands, Erika Ten Eyck, thinks that the opportunity for her students is unmatched.
“When adults were the presenters, they did a fabulous job,” Ten Eyck said. “However, I think high schoolers are the perfect ‘educators.’ I really stress that they are taking time away from their schedules to teach the [students] about this because the high schoolers feel it is so important. My students feel so important to have the attention of these older students.”
However comfortable the high school students may be with presenting and interacting with the younger student, each Project Charlie student facilitator must attend training sessions.
With that, she is thoroughly satisfied with the presentation skills the high schoolers bring along with them.
“I am always super impressed with how these sophomores, juniors, and seniors conduct themselves in front of these students and even their previous teachers,” Ten Eyck said. “They work to make every student feel validated and heard.”
Ten Eyck is very encouraged to see her students responding so well to the lessons and soaking up all the information that truly will benefit them.
“I think the lesson that I see the students applying right away is the peer pressure refusal techniques,” Ten Eyck said. “While the presenters use drug-related scenarios, these kids learn different ways to stick up for themselves on an everyday basis.”
It’s safe to say that all the hard work and passion the high schoolers put into making Project Charlie so successful is something that is unmatched. Students get a taste of the important lessons when they are young, decreasing the chance of them running into some sticky situations in their future.
“Current high school students still credit their healthy choices today with the connection they made with their Project Charlie high school student facilitators years ago,” Vonk said.