After sifting through dozens of issues from young people in military families, Army teen leaders selected substance abuse awareness and prevention as their top concern earlier this year.

During the annual Youth Leadership Forum in Massachusetts in June, 75 teens from garrisons and installations worldwide voted on the most important issues they would like the Army to help them address.

As votes were tallied electronically, substance abuse took the top spot, followed by emotional support and job opportunities. Other issues that were considered included fundraising and donations, nutrition, transportation, and activities and sports.

Voting was the culmination of months of work leading up to the YLF by Army Child and Youth Services program staff and the Army Teen Panel, a select group of 15 young leaders who met in April to begin this year's process. CYS is part of the U.S. Army Installation Management Command's G9 Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation division.

The YLF program includes team-building activities, technology, character and leadership education, service learning and more. Participants learn skills, such as briefing techniques, development of issues, problem solving and decision making. Youth and CYS staff attending the meeting take the ideas, skills and information back to their local installations. Students this year came from all five IMCOM directorates, as well as the National Guard and Cadet Command.

After the top three issues were identified, Army Teen Panel members developed and delivered an outbrief for Brig. Gen. Robert W. Bennett, director of G8 resources management; Col. Thomas Stewart, director of joint staff, Massachusetts Army and Air National Guard, Joint Force Headquarters, Hanscom Air Force Base; and Suzanne King, CYS chief.

Bennett said the teens' outbriefing was well-researched and prepared. "They were an impressive group of representatives for their local installations."

He told the YLF participants they play an "important role in identifying to Army leadership where to focus attention and resources to make a positive impact on the local programs."

The outbriefing was held at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, where YLF participants also became senators for the day, addressing historic acts related to the U.S. entry into World War I.

Citing peer pressure to abuse drugs and alcohol, the rise in teens substituting vaping for cigarette smoking, and the legalization of marijuana in some states, the youth offered the following recommended solutions:
• Educate drug and alcohol users with science and through contact with former users;
• Change staff protocol to allow adults to maintain files on youth without reporting their behavior;
• Train staff on how to deal with drug abuse confessions, and
• Establish a teen clinic where young people can discuss issues in a confidential and anonymous environment.

The Army teens also requested expanded emotional support training for youths and adults in CYS youth centers. Noting that caring staff are in the youth centers, the out-briefing stated that more resources are needed to address complex behavioral issues and help improve stability for young people's rapidly changing lives.

Last year's number one issue among YLF participants was the need for assistance in developing peer-to-peer emotional skills to help others address their mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, stress, bullying, isolation, gang violence, social media use and others.

In response, this year's YLF participants received training on developmental relationships from the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that conducts research and develops resources, tools and practices for partner organizations to create supportive environments where young people can succeed.

Developmental relationships are close connections through which young people discover who they are, cultivate abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them.

"This is training for the teens, for them to take back to their garrisons and share with their CYS leaders," said Fatima Muhammad, director of youth and family solutions at the Search Institute. Clare Eisenberg, research associate, also facilitated the Search Institute's YLF programming.

Rounding out this year's list of top three issues were increased job opportunities.
The teens requested more job fairs and employment opportunities in their communities to help them develop training and certifications for the workforce, as well as internships and externships. They also asked that the CYS workforce preparation pilot program initiated last year be continued.

During this year's forum, youth and adults were able to complete certification through the National Football League enabling them to officiate flag football games.

Improved snacks, which was the number three priority among last year's YLF participants, was addressed at this year's meeting by Denise Laursen, G9 nutritionist.

The Army this year instituted new options for meals and snacks which meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for the Child and Adult Care Food Program, Laursen said. Youth centers added cooking and shopping classes, and Army CYS cooks were trained to create healthier meals.

Bennett said the teens' outbrief of the 2019 YLF issues was well-researched and prepared. "They were an impressive group of representatives for their local installations."

He told the YLF participants they play an "important role in identifying to Army leadership where to focus attention and resources to make a positive impact on local programs."

YLF participants this year also attended work sessions on using music, art and literature to connect with peers.

"Say It With Music," a workshop run by three recording-industry professionals from Atlanta, allowed the teens to write lyrics, select a beat and record an original song.

Alyssa Liles-Amponsah guided students in using art and literature as tools for inclusion, diversity and equity. "The emphasis is on how teens can be good leaders and have fun while learning," she said.

Teens also spent several hours at Old Sturbridge Village, a replica of a 19th-century New England village, learning skills such as wood working, blacksmithing and cooking on a fireplace hearth.

Additional programming and resources for this year's YLF were provided by Kids Included Together's Jeremy Crisp, program manager for KIT's District of Columbia metro area, and Anna Luther, curriculum director, who trained CYS staff on working with teens with disabilities or complex needs; and Lynne Borden and Marc Otto, who shared concepts from the University of Minnesota's Center for Research and Outreach's Military REACH project, which addresses relevant issues for military families.