Rock County Youth2Youth will celebrate its 25th anniversary from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Holiday Inn Express, 3100 Wellington Place in Janesville. The event will feature hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction. Former state Sen. Tim Cullen will be the guest speaker.
"It’s very exciting. I’m very thankful and it’s very unbelievable that we’ve had the funding for 25 years to be able to do this," said Debbie Fischer, executive director for Rock County Youth2Youth. "We have a lot of key community people who have helped us get here who are coming to the celebration. It’s nice to have past Sen. Tim Cullen speaking. He’s helped us through the years. A couple of alumni also are going to be guest speakers. It’s going to be exciting to hear their stories and hear how (Youth2Youth) personally affected them."
The Youth2Youth program has about 200 members and is offered at 15 schools throughout Rock County.
The group is made up of high school- and middle-school students who visit local elementary schools and middle/intermediate schools to talk to children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
The group receives funding through United Way, as well as state and federal grants, Fischer said.
Last year the group conducted about 150 presentations and talked to about 5,000 students.
"They get the most up-to-date, research-based information to develop their presentations," Fischer said. "So when the kids are educating other kids, they’re educating them on real research, not just, ‘We heard this.’ We start in second grade and go through high school. It’s important to start them young."
Youth2Youth offers the Latinos Against Drugs program, in which Hispanic students go out in the community and talk to their peers about drug and alcohol use.
"We translate the information from English to Spanish, so the people who speak Spanish don’t have to worry about the language barrier to get the right information," Soto said.
Natalia Zambora, 15, of Beloit said her mother encouraged her to become involved with Latinos Against Drugs.
She said being involved with the group has given her the confidence to speak to others in a public setting.
"She dragged me here and I really didn’t want to come. I’m really shy. They go out and present, and I don’t like to present," Zambora said. "Then I saw my friends here and I thought, ‘Maybe, this won’t be that bad.’ Growing up and seeing (the Youth2Youth members) present, I always found it fun to watch and interesting, so joining wasn’t that bad."
Fischer said Youth2Youth also has a coalition group in which adults work with youth members.
"We’re just not youth. We have a very strong youth-adult partnership," Fischer said. "(The adults) help us write our grants. They help us do our strategic planning. They’re involved in the whole coalition framework. There are sectors from faith-based organizations, businesses and civic groups. There are sectors from throughout the county."
Fischer said she has noticed a decrease in substance abuse among area youth during the past 25 years. However, she said there are statistics indicating that more middle school-age students are starting to use drugs and alcohol more often.
"That’s worrisome that they’re starting younger and starting to experiment," Fischer said. "The number of students not using (drugs or alcohol) in Beloit is extremely higher than the Rock County numbers. That’s starting to show that we’re not the only answer, but we’re part of the answer, and we’re excited about seeing that."
Fischer said several of the original members’ children are now involved with the program. She said some former youth members are now adult advocates.
Megge Casique, prevention specialist, said she became involved with Youth2Youth when she was in seventh grade and has worked full time for the group since 2011. Casique serves as an adult facilitator at Franklin, Edison and Marshall middle schools in Janesville and for the Parkview School District in Orfordville.
"The biggest thing when I was a youth, I felt I was helping to make a difference and I was saving somebody’s life, even if it was one person’s life," Casique said. "Now to be able to share that experience with the youth that we have now and letting them know they do make a difference, it’s rewarding."
Casique said being involved with Youth2Youth helped her become more confident in herself.
"I was a very shy person when I first joined. It definitely helped with my public speaking, coming out of my shell and making new friends," Casique said. "I think we all go through that stage when we don’t have the right friends, so it helped me be around people that had similar values as I did."
Maria Acevedo, 19, of Beloit was a youth advocate for the program when she attended middle school and high school, and now she serves as an adult adviser for Latinos Against Drugs.
"Now, I’m involved with the other aspect of it," Acevedo said. "I’m not a youth advocate anymore. I’m an adult adviser to these kids, and they really look up to you. I think I’m making a difference by being involved with it. (The students) are making a difference in my life, seeing how they’re developing as leaders and seeing how well they’re going out there and doing these presentations."
Fischer said they currently are working with other counties to develop Youth2Youth programs in their communities.
"We’re excited because we’re starting to train other youths," Fischer said. "We just did a training up in Sparta, so we’re planting seeds for other youth programs just like ours, and we hope to expand that."
The Rock County Youth2Youth members meet once a week at their perspective schools. The Latinos Against Drugs group meets at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 1000 Bluff St. in Beloit. A countywide meeting is held quarterly, and a summit meeting is held in August.
Zambora said she would like to see more of her male counterparts join Latinos Against Drugs.
"We need more guys here," Zambora said. "This group is, basically, made up of girls."
For more information about Youth2Youth, call 608-313-9220 or go to rcy2y.com.