The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 18, 2013

YMCA effort targets drugs, obesity

JOHNSTOWN — Obesity and heroin were recently identified in separate reports as major problems afflicting the area.

In early July, the ad hoc Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission described heroin trafficking as the common denominator among the city’s issues with housing, law enforcement, education and rehabilitation. A University of Washington study revealed obesity prevalence among Cambria County males age 20 and older increased 13.2 percent from 2001 to 2011, the 10th-worst result in the nation.

Both caught the attention of Sharon Jones, the Greater Johnstown Community YMCA’s executive director.

And she believes the YMCA is about to begin a program that can help children develop the skills needed to avoid the physical and emotional problems associated with drug addiction, overeating and other harmful behavior. Starting in September, the organization will hold a 12-week middle school initiative, open to children in sixth through eighth grades.

“It’s a full-rounded program. ... It’s not just directly related to drugs, but it’s related to building children in the sense of providing them with opportunities to build what we call assets,” Jones said.

Organizers hope the program can teach children how to avoid self-destructive activity and make positive impacts on their community.

“It’s not just teaching the kids to say no to the drugs and the alcohol, but it’s also giving them the ability to say yes to other things and other options,” said Debra Smith, the YMCA’s health and fitness director.

Discussing the pitfalls of drug addiction will be part of the course.

“We know that heroin use, number one, could be a fatal type of thing, so it’s certainly a health issue,” said Jones. “But kids who get involved in drug use have to come up with the money somehow, so there is a spike in crime due to the fact that they’ve got to find money. They’re either burglarizing, stealing from their families, breaking into organizations, those types of things, in order to support their habits.”

The wellness and educational curriculum will include lessons about support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies and positive identity. Subjects such as drugs, alcohol, bullying, leadership, honesty, caring and respect will be addressed.

Youngsters who complete the free program will receive a YMCA youth membership for 48 weeks.

The YMCA received a $20,000 grant from the United Way of the Laurel Highlands to run the initiative. Holy Cross Lutheran Church members are raising funds, too.

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