The Poly High youth was troubled. He had been kicked out of two high schools because of his drinking, marijuana smoking and cocaine use. He had attempted to cut his wrist on one occasion. He spent some time in a hospital care unit. He was 16 years old and seemingly without hope.
But he had something going for him. There was a friend, another teen-ager who cared.
"I didn't want to go to his funeral," said Mary Beth Hand, an 18-year-old senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. "I talked to him. I let him know I was worried about him. I had my dad call his parents. I talked to his friends who were drinking and cheering him on."
Hand, one of about 20 peer counselors at the school's drop-in crisis center, the Speak Easy, said the troubled youth now is close to seeking professional help. His friends have stopped encouraging his abuses, and he is considering going back to playing sports.
"The No. 1 substance problem with the kids we talk to is alcohol," Hand said. "It really is a difficult problem and there are no easy answers. But I think the school really helps. Everyone is involved--the nurses, the teachers, the counselors and the students."
The students at Poly are involved. And Paula Hekimian, a counselor at College Hospital, says that is what is needed, teen-agers talking to other teen-agers, especially during graduation time when there are so many tragedies involving teen-age drinking and driving.
So, for the second consecutive year Hekimian and other counselors at the Cerritos branch of the psychiatric hospital asked students from Southeast area high schools to come up with campaigns to encourage graduates to have "safe and sober" graduations.
Students in 10 Southeast high schools conducted campaigns.
Their efforts included holding rallies against drugs and alcohol, bringing wrecked vehicles on campus to show the effects of alcohol-related accidents, placing stickers and posters on campuses and in classrooms that rail against drug and alcohol abuse and providing peer counseling to troubled youths.
"We hoped this campaign would inspire students to remain sober during this time and if they did drink to not drive," said Hekimian, director of the hospital's Youth Response Unit.
Cash prizes were given for the first three schools judged to have put on the best campaigns. However, there were no losers; the remaining schools received plaques.
During a recent luncheon at the hospital, Long Beach Poly students received the first prize, which was $2,000. Accepting the award for Poly were Alex Cherin, 17, and Gwen Larsen, 18, leaders in their school's safe and sober campaign. The second prize of $1,000 went to Gahr High School of Cerritos. California High School of Whittier got the third prize of $500.
Southeast schools receiving plaques were St. John Bosco and St. Joseph, both of Bellflower, Bellflower High, Long Beach's Jordan High, Cerritos High and Los Alamitos High, which is in northwest Orange County but was included with the Southeast group.
Judges who rated the schools included representatives from the California Highway Patrol; the National Council on Alcoholism, Long Beach branch; Helpline Youth Counseling, a Southeast-area youth counseling service, and the Los Angeles chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The judges were most impressed with the Poly High drop-in crisis center, said Wayne Sugita, a counselor for Helpline.
The Speak Easy is open before and after school and during lunch periods. It is staffed by students trained to listen to peers talking about their problems, especially substance abuse. The students refer troubled youths to the proper outside agencies, said Nancy Stimson, an adult coordinator and counselor at Poly High. She said the peer counselors must successfully complete a training program before they work at the center.
"When the students come into the center, we don't judge them," said Shawn Oatey, 18, who helped start the Speak Easy. We try and get them to open up and talk about their problems. It might take many visits. We try to motivate them to look for their own answers."
During any given week, between 50 and 75 students come to the Speak Easy, housed in a former classroom, to talk with counselors or listen to lectures by medical authorities on everything from suicide to drug and alcohol abuse. Stimson said she hopes the counseling and lecturing will have some good effect on the students.
And to make sure the seniors have a safe and sober Graduation Day today, she said, "the majority of them will board a bus to Disneyland.
"That makes for a pretty safe and sober graduation. Teachers will act as chaperones. The students will return by bus to Long Beach."