Controlled substances: Natural High is the program of choice as school year is set to begin
Jon Sundt (center), with wife Kathliene (upper left), daughter Aeriel (right) and son Van (lower left), says administration of his Natural High program costs 12 cents a kid. PHOTO BY NIKI BARRIOS
Students in La Jolla and University City, along with about 130,000 in the rest of San Diego Unified School District, will hit the bricks running on the first day of school, Tuesday, Sept. 8. La Jolla and UC kids will probably have new notebooks and iPads, new clothes and shoes and new opportunities and challenges in academics and social life.
One current challenge for kids involves choosing natural highs instead of drugs, which create a false reality.
What's a parent to do?
Valerie Rock, a clinical psychologist and parent of two La Jolla Elementary School students, is impressed with a program called Natural High.
"The more I learned,” she said, “the more I loved it. Natural High promotes the most relevant of factors in substance abuse prevention, igniting the passion of youth while fostering creativity and self-esteem. The program's tools are highly effective in sending a powerful social message and supporting overall psychological health. Every student could deeply benefit from this program" as the school year and its potential for discovery begins.
We all want students to get highs in life that come from healthful choices – no one more than La Jolla resident Jon Sundt, the program's founder, who has been helping kids find their passion without the filters of drugs or alcohol. Sundt lost two brothers to drugs years ago.
“In 1988,” he explained, “my little brother Steven died of a cocaine overdose. He left behind a beautiful 5-year-old daughter and loving family. Six years later, Eric, my other younger brother, committed suicide after a decade of severe depression. Doctors said depression and his subsequent death were linked to long-term drug use that began in middle school."
In 1994, Natural High (formerly Sundt Memorial Foundation) kicked off its national program with a few assemblies and a slide projector. Kids were taught that finding their passion and doing what they love produces an authentic high; moreover, they learned, saying yes to healthful choices also makes it easier to say no to drugs. More than 8 million youth have gotten the Natural High message in 20,000 classrooms across the country in the last 20 years.
Locally, Natural High representatives have visited The Bishop's, Muirlands Middle, Bird Rock Elementary and La Jolla Country Day schools.
Department of Justice teen drug statistics show that 83.9 percent of students say it is easy to obtain marijuana. Twenty-five percent of students in high school have reported they were offered drugs on school property. Drug overdose is one of the leading causes of death among young people, and one in three families wrestles with drug-based problems. Meanwhile, in the last four years, peer-to-peer growth amid Natural High's programs has reportedly been warmly received by teens and tweens.
"We give this program away for free and are funded by grants from organizations," said Sundt, the program's largest donor. The cost, he added, is 12 cents a kid.
Other efforts, he said, just don't cut it.
“Think weight loss," Sundt said. "Just say no to butter. It doesn't work. After speaking with education and addiction experts, we decided to start Natural High because we knew we could make a lasting change in lives of youth.
“We use good science and tools of marketing. It's common sense. Show kids super kids who don't engage in drugs and alcohol. Stories by the right messengers do change lives.
“Promote character development. Kids involved in meaningful activities are much more resilient and much less likely to use drugs. It could be sports, drama, church, art."
John Lee Evans, a psychologist and a San Diego Unified Board of Education member, concurs.
“As a psychologist and school board member,” Evans said, “I have seen the devastation of drugs on young people's lives. Heroin use is going up in our community, but parents and kids need to be informed about the effects of all drugs, including alcohol. It's not enough to to say 'Don't do drugs.'
Evans is also impressed with a particular Natural High strategy – getting celebrities to talk about alternative means to feel good. Popular skateboarder and Carlsbad native Tony Hawk came on board the program in 2004 and made a video, “Natural High 2,” with several other young athletes. Bethany Hamilton, a surfing pro and the victim of a shark attack that took her arm but not her passion for surfing, shared her story in a Natural High video. "I've seen people start with weed,” she said, “and they become like a slave to it, and you see them lose their drive in life.”
Video interviews, Sundt explained, are paired with worksheets and discussion guides for educators to spark meaningful conversations with students about goals, values, role models and support networks and natural highs – meanwhile, he said, age is no respecter of persons.
During an address to a La Jolla sixth-grade class, he explained, one mother expressed her surprise at Sundt's efforts in a class so young. He told the class that he knew they were too smart to do drugs, but he asked them if they knew someone close who does drugs or uses alcohol. 80 percent of the kids' hands reportedly shot up. Sundt's response was 15 seconds of silent eye contact with the mom.
"Our overarching message,” Sundt said, “is that life is great. While we are not a magic bullet, you can be cool and never do drugs. You can have something that makes you special.”
On Saturday, Sept. 12, Hawk, Natural High's celebrity ambassador for 2015, will appear at a Natural High fundraiser program at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad. A cocktail reception and dinner, an auction, dancing and dessert are planned. For ticket information and more on Natural High, go to naturalhigh.org and naturalhigh.org/gala.