WEST VALLEY — It's Friday night at the rec center. Two girls chat animatedly. One of them, 13-year-old Roxanne Abuyo, munches on chips. Her 12-year-old friend, Maria Mejia, sips pop from a can.
Nearby, Tadd Gadduang, 15, takes off his denim jacket and drapes it over a chair. He sits down and talks to a couple of girls. Another teen in a red sweatshirt joins the group and stows a Hello Kitty carryall by her side. She, too, takes a seat. By 6 p.m., about 30 kids, ages 11 to 17, are seated, U-shaped, in community room A.
Welcome to a youth social with a purpose. Since January, Filipino-American teens from all over the valley have been spending Friday evenings here, not to play ball or splash in the pools. They are in LifeSkills Training (LST), learning how to navigate life and especially how not to start smoking, drinking or doing drugs.
The LST program was funded late last year by the Utah Department of Health. Although the curriculum addresses drugs and their adverse effects, the bulk of the training deals with skills such as managing anxiety, communicating with others and building friendships. It ends by teaching skills for saying "no" to unfair requests or offers to use drugs.
In the second session, Mejia learned a decisionmaking technique called "the stop sign." "You think about the problem, what your choices are, and you act on the best choice," she said.
In addition, the kids learn how to make decisions without being influenced by other people. "Everyone's always asking you to do drugs," when you go to a party, said ninth-grader Aieko Navales.
"There's always pressure to do drugs, to have sex and to be part of a clique," said Chazzie Gadduang, the LST youth program coordinator who is barely out of her teens herself.
Then there are the messages from the media, especially ads. In one LST session, the kids were asked to identify the man on the cover of an issue of Architectural Digest magazine. The students were stumped until a girl read the caption: "Frank Sinatra." It was not lost on the group that this former pop culture icon is holding a cigarette. In another ad, the kids more readily recognized gen-X actor Ben Affleck. They also identified the same message, that smoking is cool.
Statistics belie this tobacco advertising claim, LST author and Cornell University psychologist Gilbert Botvin believes. "Cigarette smoking is the number one preventable cause of death and disability in the United States. It's linked to cancer. It's linked to heart disease."
He says he discovered in two decades of research that students who received LST not only were better prepared to deal with the challenges of life but were less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs. The program focuses on middle-schoolers, because if kids experiment with drugs, they generally do it at the beginning of their adolescent years, he said.
A 1996 Time magazine article on LST said the program appears to work. In one study, 4,446 Newark, N.J., seventh-graders in a LifeSkills program tracked through graduation engaged in only half the drug, tobacco and alcohol use of their un-Skilled contemporaries. Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that LST's effects lasted more than six years after the first evaluation.
Although data on LST's effectiveness, specifically on Asian Americans, are not available, Botvin contends that evaluation studies show LST works for white, black and Hispanic youths, as well as urban and suburban adolescents. Botvin points out that the program is also being implemented successfully in Spain, South America and, closer to home, Boston's Chinatown.
The Filipino-community LST in West Valley City is free for participants and comes with dinner, transportation reimbursement and possible extra school credit. With a supplemental Cultural Enhancement Program, the kids also go on outings to watch movies like "Down to Earth," Chris Rock's new movie with racial themes, and learn a Philippine dialect, Tagalog.
The program has become so popular that organizers had to cap enrollment in February and are seeking additional funding to accommodate kids on a waiting list.
"On the first day, parents were pushing scared, reluctant kids through the door. But now, the kids come in all by themselves. They're smiling. They seem to be enjoying themselves," said trainer Chata Gadduang.
LST program coordinator and trainer Manny Evangelista said the Cultural Enhancement Program is not just fun and games; it aims to bridge the generation gap between the participants, most of them U.S. born, and their parents, who immigrated from the Philippines.
"When the children understand where their parents are coming from, they can communicate with them better," Evangelista said. This addresses what Botvin calls "a great disconnect" between kids and their parents, which he says is universal among all cultures.
This "disconnect" was summed up in a "Dear Abby" letter from a 14-year-old girl in Washington state, which partially reads: "Right now, I don't want to talk to my parents about anything! Lots of things happen in my life that I wish I could talk to my parents about, but I guess I can't! The only people I feel safe talking with are my friends."
Botvin says these peer influences can have negative consequences. "The primary risk factor for smoking, drug use and even violence are friends engaging in those behaviors," he pointed out.
Conversely, "kids who don't have good social skills and who are shy can become socially isolated," Botvin said. "Generally, they become more and more isolated and develop problem behaviors." He adds that LST helps kids be more successful and reduces their motivations to use illicit drugs.
Evangelista said he and other Filipino community leaders chose to use the LST program, because it has been proven effective and because "it teaches the kids ways to work on anger, frustration and sadness, instead of turning to tobacco and alcohol."
In helping its youths avoid being casualties of drug use, the Filipino community is not alone. Other minority-targeted prevention programs in Utah receiving funds from the Utah Department of Health are organized by the Asian Association of Utah, Millard County FACT Program, Midvale Neighbor to Neighbor, Holy Cross Ministries, Utah African American Faith Initiative, and Vietnamese Volunteer Youth Association.
According to Heather Borski, the health department's community coordinator, it wants to create an atmosphere in our communities that it is socially unacceptable to smoke. This message is reinforced by a comprehensive effort — like one big jigsaw puzzle— in the classroom, home, media and community.
Borski says a program like LifeSkills Training, which reaches middle-school kids like Abuyo and Mejia, is a piece of that puzzle.
Jewel Punzalan Allen is a freelance writer who lives in West Valley City.