THE BLOG
10/21/2015 10:31 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2016

A Spark Can Lead the Way

In some early Native American cultures, the test to become a warrior was running through a gauntlet of tribesmen who would beat and whip young men as they tried to make it to the other end. The theory was that if a young man could withstand such attack, he had what it took to survive warfare.

This serves as a powerful metaphor for today's youth culture as it relates to drug and alcohol use. At middle schools and high schools around the United States, our children are running through a similar gauntlet that includes intense pressure to use drugs and alcohol. Make no mistake, they are being badgered by cultural norms and media messages that glorify being wasted. And there is direct peer pressure from so-called friends who want company as they go down the wrong path in life.

A recent study by Columbia University states that teen substance abuse is the number one health crisis in America. More than gun violence or any type of cancer.

Today 20,000 children tried drugs. Tomorrow another 20,000 will use drugs for the first time. The average age of first drug use is 13 years old. Our cultural gauntlet is unrelenting.

The good news is that the teen substance abuse crisis can be solved. But it is hard work that requires the collective will of our communities, schools and legislature.

Helping our children make it to the other end of the gauntlet is not easy, but well worth the time and energy we invest in it. In more than 20 years in working in drug abuse prevention, I have seen the heartbreaking and tragic loss of young lives. I have also seen kids come through the gauntlet as warriors. Both groups of young people inspire me to continue creating positive alternatives to drug and alcohol use.

When my two brothers lost their lives to drug abuse, our nation was losing its war on drugs and rejecting its message of "Just Say No." Why? Because what do young people do after they've said no? What do they say yes to?

The nonprofit drug abuse prevention organization Natural High, which I founded more than 20 years ago, subscribes to the Sparks Theory. Quite coincidentally, we share quite a bit of overlap in our beliefs.

We believe that if a young person possesses a "spark" for an activity, talent, or quality, he or she is very likely to succeed in school and in life. A spark -- or a natural high - can be dance, music, faith or leadership. There are more than 200 different types of sparks and no one is more or less helpful than another. The two things that matter most are that young people have identified their spark and have adults to support them. This tells us we're on the right track at Natural High because in addition to helping young people find their passion in life, we've created a powerful network of 20,000 educators committed to supporting youth. These educators are empowered with the latest educational resources that enable them to effectively encourage students to say yes to positive, healthy choices.

As with most great news, Sparks Theory comes with its challenges. It's encouraging to know that if young people have a spark, they are far less likely to engage in unhealthy behavior like alcohol or drug misuse. The bad news is that only 25% of youth in America have this spark, this passion, sense of purpose, and animating energy.

I believe it is because we have not yet effectively shown young people exactly what's in store for them at the other end of the gauntlet. At Natural High, we're working to change that by reaching 8 million young people through classroom programs, celebrity videos, and social media. We don't just tell young people that they should avoid drugs and reach for their dreams. We show them what those dreams look like and let them hear from professional dancers like Chelsea Hightower, athletes like Rob Machado, performers like Corbin Bleu and dozens more who are all living drug-free lives. Still, clearly, there is more work to be done.

When we give a young person a spark and show them how it can light their way, they can pass through any gauntlet. And when they make it through, they stand at the other end and inspire others to do the same.