For Leland & Gray students, free ski access — on one condition
A new program at Leland & Gray Union High School, Refuse to Use, can offer students a free, unrestricted pass to ski or snowboard at Stratton Mountain this winter. Approximately one third of the Leland & Gray student body participate in skiing and snowboarding at the ski resort as part of the school’s longstanding winter activities program.

For Leland & Gray students, free ski access — on one condition

New program discourages substance use in the broader context of building a healthy life

TOWNSHEND — Leland & Gray Union Middle/High School students and parents are poised to begin a five-phase program that will not only underscore the benefits of intentional, substance-free living, but also earn each participating student a free, unrestricted pass to ski or snowboard at Stratton Mountain this winter.

The event on Thursday, Sept. 15 features Boston-area speaker Joel Stanton, a former corporate consultant, who'll engage with the school community as a required first step toward the free pass.

The core of his talk, Stanton said, is that “we all have a part to play in building a community of substance abuse prevention.”

“[In the process,] we'd do well to focus on accountability, integrity, and responsibility, cultivating an environment of supportive and healthy relationships,” he said. “And we each need to take ownership of our lives and decisions, while also relying on others for guidance, help, and support.”

The talk is a project of Refuse to Use (RTU), a 15-year-old regional substance abuse prevention effort created and sustained by The Collaborative, a small nonprofit based at Flood Brook School in Londonderry which “promotes the development of a healthy, involved community supporting substance-free youth in a caring environment.”

According to Karren Meyer, a Leland & Gray faculty member who also serves as site coordinator for RTU, the school became active in RTU nine years ago. Prior to that, students had access to Stratton one afternoon a week, plus a handful of Sundays.

“The RTU pass gives students the opportunity to ski or board every day of the Stratton winter season, including weekends and holiday breaks,” she said. “[Earning it] encourages kids to get out on the slopes, to be active, and be healthy.”

“We are focusing on trying to establish strong kids rather than on just encouraging them to stay substance free,” Meyer said.

Thus Leland & Gray has put its own imprimatur on the RTU acronym: “Resiliency/Togetherness/Understanding.”

Students must register for the regional Refuse to Use initiative, Meyer explained, “and pledge to refrain from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.”

The way the program worked in the past, students who broke their pledge lost their pass without any way to recoup it. Now if they break their pledge, the pass is placed on hold while the student works with the school and West River Valley Thrives (WRVT), a prevention nonprofit, to understand the ramifications of substance abuse.

The student's pass is then reactivated and the student can ski or snowboard for the remainder of the season.

“As a community, we understand that kids make mistakes and that together - parents, school, and community - we can help them to become stronger, resilient young adults,” Meyer said.

A similar protocol is in place for students who have to miss and thus make up any instructional session(s).

Natalie Philpot, program coordinator at The Collaborative, was instrumental in making RTU a “proactive” rather than a potentially punitive program.

She explained that the organization aimed to nurture integrity, accountability, and responsibility as part of substance abuse prevention and youth asset building; programs that help young people save money, plan for the future, and make good financial decisions.

The five-part RTU program includes specific instruction on the dangers of vaping, the implications of underage alcohol consumption, tobacco-use risks, and the deviating impact of using opioids and other drugs.

She said that in January, “all will come together for a targeted conversation using local data about substance use” - a dialogue night aimed at digging into key issues.

“Substance abuse is not a moral issue; it's a public health issue,” Philpot said. “Our efforts are designed to help kids face any critical decision they may face knowing they have the tools to choose wisely.”

Conceived as shame- and stigma-free, RTU centers on restorative practice while encouraging young people to reach out for help and communities to offer this support.

Thus, a community of prevention emerges, and we all have a part to play in nurturing our youth, Philpot added.

Now in her fourth year at The Collaborative, she said that she and her colleagues want “people to begin to understand that we're all helpers” when it comes to young people facing exacerbated post-pandemic challenges.

Leland & Gray Principal Bob Thibault said that as they emerge from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, students “face a host of challenges: social isolation, anxiety, depression. It's seen nationwide, as it's led to readjustment hurdles and behavior challenges.”

The end of the pandemic has also led to an intensified need to address substance usage.

“It's essential that kids reintegrate into social activity,” said Thibault.

He described Leland & Gray's winter activities program - in which the whole school participates - as “an active, healthy means of engaging with others in one of a range of activities - from arts to academics to sports - in which a student chooses to participate every Wednesday afternoon.” Approximately one third of the student body participates in the program at Stratton.

“I'm proud that the valley still values winter activities as a means of engaging in learning outside a classroom setting,” Thibault said. “It's a win-win for all as it builds healthy relationships among kids and the adults who instruct in the various activities.”

Sophomore Avery Hiner said the program “also helps to keep kids active and social.”

Hiner plans to go for the RTU pass because “snowboarding has always been enjoyable for me and it is also very good to learn about drug use and why it is so bad for you.”

For her, Refuse to Use “means coming together as a whole and understanding how important it really is to not use drugs,” Hiner said.

West River Valley Thrives partners with The Collaborative and Leland & Gray to ensure access to and success of the Refuse to Use program.

WRVT director Meg Gonzalez called the program “both an effective and successful strategy to reduce risk factors such as boredom and isolation and to strengthen protective factors by offering fun, healthy activities and thought-provoking discussions as a tangible incentive for our students to remain substance free.”

Through its Drug Free Communities grant, Gonzalez says WRVT supports the volunteers who provide substance-use-prevention education as part of the program. WRVT also defrays Stratton Mountain's $50 pass processing fee, providing $35 to each student.

For guest speaker, an epiphany

Stanton will address the RTU assembly speaking from experience. A while back, the consultant and data analyst had a life-changing health scare that yielded an epiphany.

While he was going through the motions of a contented life, he realized he was without purpose, adrift.

“Along the way, I forgot to actually think intentionally about where my life was heading,” said Stanton, since 2021 the owner and CEO of Stanton Insights Group, based in Medford, Mass., where he speaks to groups on living life with intentionality, according to his website.

All his work now, Stanton said, is to encourage people to live intentional, meaningful lives - “to not just survive, but to thrive.”

What does he say to students who are struggling academically, domestically, socially, or emotionally?

“It's still about intentionality. Look at where you're at now. There are things you can control and things you can't: focus on what you can,” Stanton advised.

“What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? Focus on that [to find the next step] ...even if it's just making it to school the next day,” he said.

And ask for and accept help along the way, he added.

The key to such a purposeful, intentional life, Stanton asserted, would be to stay clear of substances that can obscure the vision and achievement of one's healthy, fulfilled future.