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Compass: Deborah Williams says wise investments in youth pay off for a long time, and in more ways than one

Youth in Anchorage represent approximately 30 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future. For Anchorage and Alaska to thrive going forward, it is essential that our youth are healthy, educated, supported and substance-abuse free.

As a caring community, we have repeatedly invested in our youth to help them succeed, and it shows. But there is more that we can and must do. And we certainly should not retreat by eliminating successful programs and efforts.

An important recent analysis shows how critical our individual and collective actions are to raising thriving youth.

First, the good news: Survey results show that most teens are not drinking alcohol or using marijuana. According to the 2011 Anchorage Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS):

• Two-thirds of Anchorage students in traditional high schools are not currently using alcohol. (The percent of students not drinking increased from 59 percent in 2005 to 66 percent in 2011.)

• Almost 80 percent of Anchorage students in traditional high schools do not binge drink. (The percent of students not binge drinking increased from 72 percent in 2005 to 79.5 percent in 2011.)

• 79 percent of Anchorage students in traditional high schools are not currently using marijuana. (The percent of students not smoking marijuana has increased from 77 percent in 2005 to 79 percent in 2011.)

Yet a third of teens are engaged in some risk behaviors and need our attention. One-third is simply too many youth.

So what can we do? Results from an in-depth analysis by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Dr. Gabe Garcia and United Way of Anchorage's Sarah Sledge show there are four factors that have the strongest effect on decreasing the odds of youth engaging in risk behaviors:

• Having youth involved in organized after-school activities two or more days per week

• Having youth volunteer or help people in school or the community three or more hours per week

• Having caring and encouraging teachers

• Having parents talk to youth about school every day

These factors also were associated with reports of getting more A's and B's in school.

The more the better. As the study notes: "For every one unit increase in the number of protective factors present, students were 37 percent more likely to report getting mostly A's and B's in school, 21 percent less likely to be currently smoking marijuana, and 19 percent less likely to be missing school or classes without permission." Perceptions matter too. Students who think their parents consider it wrong for them to drink or smoke marijuana, and students who think drinking and smoking marijuana have moderate to great risk, have significantly lower rates of usage.

Drugs and alcohol have a disproportionately adverse effect on developing adolescent brains, so it is clearly important for youth to understand this.

Our inspiring official state motto is "North to the Future." Investing in youth is essential to securing that future. We cannot be penny-wise and pound-foolish with respect to our youth. Investments in youth pay off for all of us.

First and foremost, we certainly should not take any steps backward, such as cutting highly effective youth programs like Anchorage Youth Court, which is currently facing funding elimination in the mayor's proposed budgets. The evidence clearly supports the importance of giving youth meaningful volunteering/helping opportunities and engaging them in after-school activities. These are sound investments.

In Alaska, we are so fortunate to have fiscal assets, including an accessible constitutional budget reserve of $10.7 billion. There is absolutely no need to slash valuable youth programs. To help youth at risk, we need to expand them.

As individuals we also have the ability to help youth thrive by giving them opportunities to volunteer, assist others and engage in after-school activities. Our time with youth -- as parents, teachers, neighbors, relatives, mentors, tutors, coaches and other supportive adults -- is a gift that keeps on giving.

Our youth truly are our most precious natural resource. By helping them succeed, we have the golden opportunity to put our money and our time where our motto is.

Deborah Williams is executive director of the Anchorage Youth Development Coalition. The report she writes about is available at the coalition website, www.aydc.org.



By DEBORAH WILLIAMS