The plastic attache case, opened to reveal a rainbow of pills, coca leaves, marijuana, syringes and a small bottle of whiskey, looked out of place among the bright summer dresses and neat suits and the light jazz coming from the electric piano in the corner.
But to the members of the Orange County chapter of Links Inc., an organization of black professional women, the facsimiles of illegal drugs and paraphernalia represented part of the reason for the organization's existence.
The members of the group had put on their Sunday best and gathered in the sunlight of the center's patio to inaugurate an experimental, 10-week program in Orange County designed to educate junior high and high school students about substance abuse, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Project LEAD: High Expectations is a free 60-hour curriculum open to "high-risk" black and other minority children ages 12 to 17 whose environments place them in danger of involvement with drugs, early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, said project Chairwoman Dr. Diane Hambrick-LeBlanc.
The program, which is part of a national, three-year pilot project, is scheduled to begin Sept. 9 and conclude Nov. 18. Classes will meet at the senior center in Santa Ana from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursdays and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays.
Designed with money obtained through a grant from the Office of Substance Abuse Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Project LEAD: High Expectations is in its second of three trial years, during which time the program will be offered through Links chapters in cities around the country. At the end of the third year, results will be evaluated and the program offered for a fee to any organization, school or agency that wants to provide it to community youth, said Hambrick-LeBlanc.
In California, the only two cities participating in the second year's trial are Oakland and Santa Ana.
The curriculum was drawn up by "a panel of nationally known experts in things like chemical dependency, child development, education and substance abuse who were brought together by Links in Washington, D.C.," said Hambrick-LeBlanc, a doctor of family medicine with a practice in Santa Ana. While local Links members will teach some of the classes, most of the teaching will be done by specialists from such local groups as the Orange County Youth Gang Task Force, Planned Parenthood, the Orange County Board of Education, the Orange County Probation Department, the American Red Cross and the Black Business Alliance of Orange County.
The courses are divided into five sections: self-esteem and self-image; decision-making; prevention of alcohol and drug abuse; pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS; and academic and vocational excellence.
"We're going to be trying to direct people toward schools, careers, college, vocations," said Hambrick-LeBlanc.
Part of the program, she said, is designed for parents.
"While the child is learning about what he or she can do to form decisions about drug and alcohol use," said Hambrick-LeBlanc, "the parent may be in another room learning how to help the child come to those decisions. Also, we're specifically asking parents to volunteer as helpers in classes and groups. Our target is 50 kids and their parents."
Much of the course material involves discussion or graphic work sheets and projects, said Hambrick-LeBlanc, in order to accommodate students whose literacy skills may be lacking.
While data from the first year of Project LEAD: High Expectations is "very raw at this point," said Hambrick-LeBlanc, "we've had really positive, positive responses from parents. They're hungry for help and support and direction. Lots of people are saying, 'We have to do something,' and agencies are saying, 'We can do something,' but getting everybody together is the trick. That's what this project is for."