Double goal: Have fun, give drugs the boot

Latino youths are benefiting from a free soccer program that's the first of its kind – and most of them don't even know that the camp's mission is to keep them away from illegal drugs.

“I just came to play soccer,” said participant Luis Galdamez, 11. “I didn't know they'd be talking about drugs, too.”

Substance Abuse Prevention Services, in conjunction with Global Sports, hosted the soccer camp this week at Sugaw Creek Recreation Center Park for 100 area youths. Participants, ranging from 7 to 17, learned about soccer techniques from professional coaches as well as drug prevention tips from guest speakers.

“With soccer, we're promoting kids doing something healthy for their lives,” said Priscila Grabowski, Latino outreach coordinator for the prevention program. “And we're also giving them tips on how they can stay drug-free.”

The camp was open to all area youths, but most participants were Latino. Grabowski said the nonprofit could not afford to pay for advertising, and only the Latino media agreed to free ad space. She said she hopes to advertise in a wider variety of newspapers next year.

Sandra Naranjo, editor of Hola Noticias, said she agreed to advertise the camp because she felt it was the paper's duty to inform its readers about the opportunity.

“There is a lack of resources in our community for low income families,” she said. “By advertising this event, we made sure that the Spanish-speaking readers that couldn't get this information from the Anglo papers got it from us.”

Another reason the camp attracted mostly Latino youths is because soccer is ingrained in Latino culture.

“We love this game,” said Rodrigo Toro, a native Colombian and one of the camp's head coaches. “When you come from South America, the first gift you ever receive is a soccer ball.”

Halfway through the first day, campers ate Bimbos – a Latino Twinkie-like dessert – while Pastor Jorge Prado of Calvary Church spoke to them about the importance of faith. A camp coordinator translated for the non-Spanish-speaking campers.

Grabowski emphasized that the program was open to all youths and that addiction is colorblind

“Drugs and alcohol don't see any age, ethnicity or background,” she said. “We outreach to everyone.”

According to a report earlier this year by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Drug Free Coalition, 42.5 percent of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have used marijuana at least once. That figure is higher than the state and national percentages, 40.1 and 38.4 percent respectively.

The report also found that the increase in alcohol use was significantly higher among Hispanics and blacks than whites. And there was a significant increase in tobacco use among Hispanics, but not blacks and whites.

Arvis Williams, a guest speaker from area mental health's “Fighting Back” program, said that while the results of prevention efforts are not as quantifiable as treatment, they can be just as effective, if not more so.

“It's been statistically proven that prevention does work,” he said. “If you don't leave a positive influence, then negative influences will quickly come in.”

Many campers Tuesday seemed only to be half listening to Prado as they rustled their dessert wrappers and looked around absent-mindedly, leading some youth to question the effectiveness of the camp's drug prevention speaker series.

“I'm not even going to lie: You know the older kids aren't going to listen to what they're saying,” Jessica Moreno, 15, said. “But hopefully it will help the younger ones later on.”