Youth substance abuse is on the rise. The Orthodox Christian Coalition for Healthy Youth (OCCHY) has answered the call to educate and keep our youth safe.
OCCHY: educating youth since 2010
Instant gratification. Peer pressure. Thrill-seeking. Our kids are exposed to so much these days, and with increasing pressure than ever before, Keeping them safe gets more challenging every day. An Orthodox effort, called OCCHY — Orthodox Christian Coalition for Healthy Youth — was created in 2010 to create awareness and educate kids about the dangers of substances, to prevent use and abuse.
Under the supervision of the late Metropolitan PHILIP of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, the archdiocesan Department of Youth and Parish Ministries conducted a teen survey to assess their attitudes and behaviors around several key social issues. The findings of this survey led to concern among the church leadership, revealing that youth were experimenting with, or were currently using, alcohol, tobacco (particularly hookah), and other drugs. The Director of Youth Ministries, Fr. Joseph Purpura, began researching evidence-based solutions to the problems facing the church. It was realized that some of our own policies and practices were contributing to the problem. For example, even though there were clear policies on underage drinking, youth would often drink at parish festivals, conferences and other events.
The national OCCHY effort then began in the Antiochian Archdiocese, reaching out to local parishes to serve their geographic areas, and to create awareness and educate communities and families on how to combat not only substance abuse, but other issues that often stem from substance abuse, including bullying and sexual activity outside of marriage. The effort encourages respect for the sanctity of the human body; building strong leaders — in body, mind, and spirit. Their goal is prevention by education. They do not offer counseling or provide intervention services, but can refer people accordingly.
Greater Chicago’s chapter was established in 2010, under the auspices of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cicero, IL., where OCCHY offices are located In 2011, OCCHY-Greater Chicago applied for and was awarded a five-year federal Drug Free Communities (DFC) Support Grant, under the White House Office National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and joined the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA). Becoming a funded coalition allowed OCCHY to develop a more intentional, coordinated faith-based prevention approach to include the 80 Orthodox Christian Parishes, covering twelve (12) jurisdictions in Greater Chicago, Illinois. This grant expires in September, 2017.
Chicago’s OCCHY administration is under the direction of Archpriest Economos, Nicholas Dahdal, of St. George’s parish, and Coalition Coordinator Gordana Trbuhovich — known by many as the director of the Pan-Orthodox Choir of Greater Chicago.
Back in 2012, I met with Father Nicholas and Gordana to discuss OCCHY’s mission. At that time, Father Nicholas spoke about this effort as a way to bring the Orthodox together for this critical cause.
“This is a project very dear to our hearts. This is the greatest thing for the Orthodox Church in the Chicagoland area. This mission gives us a long-awaited opportunity to really work together.”
Eight of metropolitan Chicago’s Orthodox hierarchs, headed by His Eminence Metropolitan Iakovos, endorsed and offered their blessings to the work of this coalition. The board of directors is comprised of members from various Orthodox jurisdictions. Harold A. Peponis currently serves as chairman.
Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with Father Nicholas and Gordana to learn about OCCHY’s progress. OCCHY has accomplished much in the last few years but, there’s still much work to be done.
Youth from Assumption Greek Orthodox Church – Chicago, together with youth pastor, Fr. Demetri Burikas, proudly show the sign awarded them by OCCHY for their parish Tobacco-Free Commitment; an initiative sponsored by the American Heart Association during Chicagoland’s 2016 Quit Smoking Campaign. IMAGE: OCCHY
OCCHY took on a growing problem of underage Hookah smoking, beginning with the Middle Eastern community. Gordana explained that since the tobacco used for hookah is attractively packaged without mention of the word ‘tobacco’ on the label, underage use is on the rise. Smoking the aromatic fruit-flavored Hookah is deemed harmless, by most youth. Quite the opposite is true – smoking Hookah tobacco is actually more harmful than cigarettes.
As the coalition mounted its effort to lead the fight against the use of hookah by teens, their work became recognized by local, county and national Departments of Public Health. Gordana explained.
“We joined the fight to raise Chicago’s age restriction to purchase tobacco, from 18 to 21. We advocated at the state legislature to identify Hookah as a Tobacco form. By educating officials with our Hookah publications, we helped to get local ordinances passed. Out of 600 DFC coalitions in the U.S., only OCCHY was addressing Hookah hazards. Now, among neighboring health organizations, we’re considered the ‘hookah’ experts.”
Gordana is quick to point out that this is not just a “Middle Eastern” ethnic problem.
“As Hookah flavored tobacco is being marketed as non-tobacco, both young and old consumers are falling for it. Even though the use of Hookah is a long-standing cultural tradition in the Arabic community, it has recently experienced a rise in modern culture, as evidenced by the growing number of Hookah bars and lounges operating throughout the U.S., most prominently in the vicinity of college campuses.
We need to educate and be vigilant. The health risks are substantial. In fact, hookah smoking increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer. Smoke from flavored Hookah tobacco contains 100 times more tar and lead and 3 times more carbon dioxide than cigarettes and the inhalation level is 100-200 times the volume of smoke.”
OCCHY-Greater Chicago has emerged as experts on Hookah tobacco and its impact on both the Orthodox Christian and Greater Chicago youth community. OCCHY has produced & distributed more than 20,000 brochures & booklets, throughout Greater Chicago, the U.S., and internationally, as far as Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East. Pictured is the 1st of 7 Hookah prevention digital billboards posted on Chicagoland’s streets and highways, from April-September 2017. IMAGE: OCCHY
Among OCCHY’s programs, implemented in many area Orthodox parishes, is “Temple Guardians”. Taking inspiration from 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”, youth are taught that their body is a temple, and they should treat it as such. They are given bracelets to identify themselves as “Temple Guardians”.
“This is an important movement to teach youth to treat their bodies with respect, and not only watch what they put in their bodies, but how to care for themselves, and what they do with their bodies. We want them to stand up for their bodies. The kids understand, and wear their bracelets with pride.”
Lessons like these are proactive and go a long way in teaching kids to not only stay away from substances, but to avoid behaviors that they aren’t mature enough for, and to keep themselves safe.
Apprehension vs. Awareness and Action
Some Orthodox communities have been reluctant to embrace this important movement, thinking they may be “giving kids ideas”. The sad truth is that kids — starting in middle school — are subject to these “ideas” every day at school and know more about it than we do. By their teen years, they interact with classmates who are using substances and who frequently approach them to use, causing them to endure peer pressure worse than any previous generation. Bullying — including cyberbullying — is also at an all-time high, and kids need to know how to protect themselves. Just because a teenager goes to church one day a week, doesn’t guarantee that he or she will avoid using substances or refrain from making poor choices that follow use.
“We need a concerted effort of education, reassurance, and support — on a regular basis — to keep these kids safe. We all have to work together in this effort, from the clergy, to youth pastors and volunteers, to parents, and all adults involved. Together, we arm kids to fight against these pressures and stay the course. We can’t be apprehensive or shy about it. They already know about these things. Kids need to know why they shouldn’t use, what could happen — what usually happens to users and abusers. We need action, a group effort to keep them healthy and safe.”
“Just say no” is not enough, and we need this concentrated effort, backed by faith, to keep our children safe from substances, bullying, and other adverse behaviors. We all need to work together to arm our kids for this fight. No family is immune. OCCHY is leading the effort. Let’s join them. It can be the difference between life and death. If we believe our kids are the future, we need to step up. OCCHY has the tools, let’s utilize them to protect our kids, to protect the future.
Maria A. Karamitsos is a Media Sector Rep for OCCHY
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