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Katie LeJeune is a senior at Monticello High School.

By Theresa Laumann

The I.M.P.A.C.T. Coalition

We are up against a time where JUULs are finding their way into the hands of our kids, alcohol consumption by teens is still heavy, and many parents are unsure of what to say. It’s tough. And this is where prevention efforts come into play.

The I.M.P.A.C.T. Coalition of Piatt County, through the Drug Free Communities federal grant, has the unique opportunity to focus all of its substance use prevention efforts on the Monticello community. While it might not be easy to admit that there are drug problems within our community that need to be tackled, we owe it to our youth; we owe our young people an environment that is free of drugs. So instead of turning a blind eye, we are opening up to innovative solutions.

With this article, I.M.P.A.C.T. Coalition launches three communication campaigns that will run into October of 2019. We will help our middle school youth to better understand the risks associated with underage drinking. The truth about marijuana use will be communicated to our high schoolers. And parents of high school students will receive education on the harm in supplying their children with alcoholic beverages.

It’s a big undertaking but our passion carries us forward. It is our mission that unites us: we all want to eradicate adolescent drug use in our community.

In prevention, we know that in order to strengthen our community, we must come together to find solutions. One of our youngest coalition members, Katie LeJeune, 18 years-old, has proven her dedication to serving her community. She works tirelessly to provide feedback, brainstorm ideas for communication campaigns, and often reminds us of her desire to speak publicly on issues such as: underage substance use, mental health, and suicide prevention. The coalition is both fortune and proud to have such a stellar youth leader in our corner.

Q: Tell me about your hometown, Monticello.

LeJeune: It’s an adorable little town. You have the historic aspect of the square and the natural beauty of Allerton park that put this place on the map. Safety is also a very big concern for me when thinking about places to live and Monticello, while it has its fair share of dangers like every town, is very safe for families.

Q: What is the best part about living in Monticello?

LeJeune: Having easy access to the opportunities available in Champaign, Decatur, Savoy, and other nearby towns, while having the safety that larger cities lack.

Q: What improvements would you like to see over the next 5-10 years (here in Monticello)?

LeJeune: I would like to see the overall perspective of the community change. While there are plenty of friendly people, there seems to be a lot of negativity toward other people and everyone wants to get all up in everyone else’s business. As a high school student, I see that up close every day, but I see it reflected in the adults of the community as well, which sets a bad example for our youth.

Q: What is it like to be a teen right now- walk me through it.

LeJeune: The best way to describe it: interesting and overwhelming. I’ve grown up in a loving family with parents who have done an above-average job of raising me to be who I want to be and have done a phenomenal job equipping me with common sense and empathy for others. With technology as advanced as it is, social media is the center of our youth’s lives, so it’s hard to not get caught up in all of the drama and negativity surrounding it, even for someone like me. As someone who has taken an oath not to drink alcohol, smoke, or use drugs during my high school career, I face a lot of challenges with my peers who choose to do those things. There are so many more types of pressure and opportunities to get sucked in to the negativity than there were even as short as ten years ago.

Q: What do your peers, in the high school seem to be struggling with the most?

LeJeune: Mental health, mental health, mental health. We have very high academic standards at Monticello High School, so the pressure to perform better than your best is very real and very prominent in the minds of students. On top of that, we are expected to participate in extracurriculars; we have our family life, our social life, our jobs, our futures after high school, and what is supposed to be a good ten hours of sleep every night, plus whatever other obstacles life decides to throw our way. It can all become very easily overwhelming and too much for some people, which is why drugs, alcohol, and self-harm are coping mechanisms that people turn to.

Q: What has been your experience with your peers using substances?

LeJeune: Again, it’s been very interesting, especially within the last year or so. I have several friends who regularly use drugs and drink, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t drive a wedge in most of those friendships. When people think about being judged in that situation, most people think about the non-user judging the user, but I have experienced the opposite. I have had a lot of experiences where I felt judged and left out because I chose not to participate in smoking or drinking. I’ve never been to a party, but that kind of thing doesn’t happen exclusively at parties anymore; it’s part of our everyday lives. There’s a big stigma about people like me who don’t party being prissy or thinking that we are better than people who smoke, even though that’s not the case. I have seen the devastating effects that drugs and alcohol can have on people and I choose every day that I don’t want to put myself in the situation for something terrible to happen to me. It’s as simple as that.

Q: Tell me about your decision to join the I.M.P.A.C.T. Coalition.

LeJeune: My decision to join the I.M.P.A.C.T. Coalition was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I have a lot of passion for reaching our youth and making a real difference not just in our community here in Monticello, but in the rest of the world wherever I can. Being a part of the I.M.P.A.C.T. Coalition has given me several amazing opportunities of things to be a key part of already and is giving me an amazing outlet to do some real good in this world by using my story and sharing my experiences.

Q: In your opinion, what might be the benefits of youth being included in groups such as the I.M.P.A.C.T. Coalition?

LeJeune: The list goes on and on, but the main benefit is the perspective that the youth provide for the adults on the Coalition. Since we are living in the situations that we are trying to eliminate, we are able to tell the adults what will be effective and not, as well as distinguishing the stigma surrounding a problem from the reality of the problem. We are able to give an inside-look at what youths are living through and the challenges that we face that are unseen, which has already been a huge benefit in our Coalition.

Q: When it comes to educating and encouraging youth to understand the risks associated with underage drug use- what do you think are the best tools for helping youth to know the facts?

LeJeune: The best tool for helping youth is helping them. I say this because a lot of times, teens (and people in general) feel like nobody understands them, they turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain or cope. I have seen several other groups with the same mission as the I.M.P.A.C.T. Coalition that have failed miserably because instead of helping people, they judge people. They try to treat the surface-level problem (smoking, drinking, etc.) instead of going to the root of the why behind it.

Q: What goals have you set for yourself?

LeJeune: My main goal in life, and my mantra if you will, is to be happy. Life happens, we all have bad things that happen to us, but I want to live a happy life in spite of those things and use the negativity to drive me to be a better person and help more people. Another goal that I have is to travel the country and work with other Coalitions like ours and speak at their events.

Q: How do you think you’ll leave a mark on this planet?

LeJeune: Ultimately, I would like to leave my mark on this planet by helping people. Whether it’s one person or one million people, I want to make a real difference in someone’s life that inspires them to do the same and pass it on.