Gracie Hendrickson, a 16-year-old youth leader in Harvey County’s STAND program, recently won the title of Miss Kansas Outstanding Teen on the platform of “iSTAND – Teens Against Drug Abuse.”
Gracie’s platform name was inspired by the coalition based in her hometown of Kansas. “STAND is my roots. It was the first time I got involved with drug prevention, so I really wanted to incorporate their messaging with everything that I’m doing. They’re one of my biggest partners. Being able to incorporate STAND, not only as an organization, but also the word ‘STAND’ as a message, holds a lot of meaning. To me, standing is bold. It’s standing up for what you believe. It’s not just a word, there’s this whole message behind it.”
Grace became interested in prevention after losing a family member due to substance use disorder. “I thought, ‘This is a problem and I’m going to do something about it.’ My brother was involved with the STAND organization before me, so I was able to learn about the program through him. I found it was exactly the impact that I was looking to make. I joined freshman year and got to be on the Board. It’s been such an amazing experience.”
“One of the first things I got to participate in was Drug Take Back Day, where we were able to collect over a hundred pounds of opioids around Harvey County. The Opioid Epidemic has taken a huge toll, especially here in my town in Newton. So, that was a great way to get started with the program.”
“I’ve also been able to do quite a bit of speaking through STAND. I truly believe in prevention through education. Right now, substance misuse is not talked about as much as it should be. Not in schools, not in our homes, but it’s something that needs to be brought to light. We need to talk about it more with the youth.”
“I’ve also been able to help at different health fairs and community events and speak on topics such as vaping and marijuana use. One of the biggest things I did was in partnership with Newton Medical Center. I was able to talk about vaping and ask questions like, ‘Do you know that there are harmful things in your vape? Do you know what it could cause in long-term effects?’ Many of them had no idea, and there were a few people who even told me that they planned to throw out their vapes when they got home that day.”
“Hearing that, there’s no better feeling, because even if you can only see it as just a little thing with nicotine, it can be a gateway to an entire spectrum of drugs and an entire life of addiction that could become devastating.”
With Gracie’s platform, she will continue to share her prevention message through education. One of the ways she has done this is through visiting middle schools and speaking with students about the realities of youth substance use. Her goal is to eventually reach 5,000 middle schoolers all over Kansas.
“There are so many middle schoolers, and young adults even, that have a skewed perception of what youth drug use actually looks like. I was able to talk to them about what teens were doing right here in Harvey County, and I asked them questions like, ‘What percentage of teenagers in Harvey County do you think drink alcohol?’ We gave them a spectrum of percentages and many of them picked 70 or 80%, when it was really 30%. We were able to share with them that this it is not the cool thing to do, it’s not what everybody is doing, and it’s not good for our bodies. It may start with one drink, but it can lead down a path to so many other things that can become so detrimental not only to your life, but to others around you.”
“I was able to tell them not only about that, but also ways that we can combat it in another light. So, we call these Art Outlets. This is something that you can do other than drugs or substances that can give you a way to relieve stress. Since winning my title, I’ve been able to partner with the national organization, Natural High, which essentially encourages people to find their own natural high.”
“Partnering with them, I’m going to be able to use their curriculums when I go into middle schools. Finding your own natural high is such a great concept to me because most of the time, a common theme we see with teen users is that they want to find a way to escape. Being able to show them that there are so many different things you can do to escape can be really helpful.”
Gracie added that her personal choice for getting a natural high is through participation in sports. “Every time I’m on the court or running in a track meet, I love the feeling that it gives me, and I know that no drug could give me that same feeling. Plus, these activities give me benefits instead of risks.”
When asked why she chose to focus on speaking at middle schools, she responded, “A lot of adults start using drugs when they’re under the age of 18. Unfortunately, once kids get to high school, they’ve likely already made that decision for themselves. Starting with middle school students, I’m able to talk to them before the habit starts. I think middle school is the best age for kids who have a growing mind and might not have had this conversation with their family members or peers yet.”
Gracie added, “I’m not just an adult saying, ‘Hey kids, don’t do drugs.’ I’m a relatable teen and I hope to be a role model to them, and I want to provide them with other options. It’s not just ‘say no,’ but show them how to go down a different path.”
Until the next school year starts in the fall, Gracie must put a hold on her visits to the middle schools, but she is not waiting idly by. “Right now, I’m working on starting a social media campaign, so I can share with people outside of school. Until then, I’m an advocate for prevention every single day, whether it’s on social media or in-person. I’m always trying to spread the message.”
Gracie also started a local project that puts together “Fresh Start” bags for individuals coming out of substance misuse treatment to help them get a fresh start in a new life. They are filled with essential items such as toiletries, food, water and more. “Anything I could do to give them a better way to lead a healthier lifestyle and to continue their recovery process, that’s what I wanted. Before I went to my pageant, I made fifteen backpacks. They do cost quite a bit to fund, so since winning my title, I’ve been able to raise more money. Now my goal is to make 50.”
Soon, Gracie will be moving on to Nationals and competing in the Miss America Outstanding Teen pageant, where she will continue to spread her message about prevention. In the meantime, she plans to continue her prevention efforts and learn more strategies at the CADCA Mid-Year Training institute this summer, which begins July 9.
Learn more about our Youth Leadership activities during Mid-Year.