Youth Summit centers on alcohol, substance abuse

NEW ULM – Nearly 100 parents, students and members of youth advocacy organizations attended a Live Out Loud (LOL), a summit on alcohol and substance abuse at New Ulm High School Saturday.

Most workshops were geared for youth while others were intended to adults and still others were created for both groups.

One of the most compelling speakers included personal testimony from a young man who formerly lived with a family member in New Ulm while living a troubled life, until he took his treatment seriously enough to avoid prison time.

Zach Thomas credited his time in a Waverly treatment program that did not allow him to smoke tobacco, for helping him get where he is today – returning to high school to earn a diploma and studying to become a musician at McNally-Smith Music College in St. Paul.

“I worked hard at recovery for two years,” Thomas said. “I grew up in an abusive family in South Dakota. I had an addictive personality. As a youth, I stole my mom’s pipe and weed. I got into alcohol at age 12. I got into trouble in school daily, getting into lots of fights. I was cocky and thought I was indestructible. My parents split up. I was drinking daily at age 15.”

Thomas said he was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and given Adderall to treat it. Soon after that, he used cocaine, acid, mushrooms, smoked meth daily and had his fourth minor alcohol consumption charge.

Entering Juvenile Drug Court with suicidal and daily anxiety issues, Thomas said he had no morals and didn’t care about anything but himself. He got arrested and went to jail at age 20. Entering Adult Drug Court, he said he felt fortunate to begin an inpatient treatment program in Waverly instead of dying or going to prison.

Following treatment, he returned to high school, graduated, worked a number of jobs in New Ulm, and began helping other youth recover from addiction.

“Recovery for me was about helping others recover,” Thomas said. “If I can help one person recover, it’s worth the effort because that person can help others recover. If you don’t put everything you can into recovery, you won’t get anything out of it.”

Thomas said many other musicians in college want to get high on drugs. One of his best friends recently died of heroin abuse.

“I’m grateful for Drug Court for helping me get where I am now,” he said. “Many people are addicted to something today… online shopping or whatever it is. Adderall is handed out too much to kids by doctors. They’re too quick to try it. It led me to other drugs. Pills shouldn’t be thrown out to people unless they are very badly needed. I’ve been in recovery for two years, off medication now and learning to be happy without it. I still smoke tobacco. I’ve repaired my relationship with my family.”

Earlier in the day, New Ulm Medical Center Substance Abuse Counselor James Johnson and New Ulm Police Commander Dave Borchert talked about drug identification and paraphernalia.

“We’re seeing a lot of stuff (drugs) right now. Heroin and meth are back. I find it a little unsettling as a parent,” Borchert said. “If it isn’t locally grown, lots of it comes from Canada and Mexico. Pharmaceutical, synthetic drugs and marijuana are abused often. A local business sold synthetic drugs and made lots of money on it from people coming through the front door until we stopped them about a year ago.”

Borchert said law enforcement’s Drug Take Back program has aided the drug problem by getting rid of prescription drugs that may have been abused by the wrong people.

“It’s part of the community drug approach that helps us with this battle,” he said. “Even school (crossing) patrols have seen hand to hand drug deals and reported them to us.”

Johnson said every drug has its own signs and symptoms. Common symptoms include lack of motivation and school disinterest. He said some drugs mimic depression. Other drug clues include appearance and eating habit changes, mood swings, overeating or not eating at all.

At the end of the program, New Ulm native John Rodenberg, now a Minnesota Court of Appeals Court Justice, said there is no fast answer to alcohol and substance abuse.

“It takes a variety of organizations like SPOTS, Character Counts and community policing to deal with these issues,” Rodenberg said.

He predicted more intense legal debates in the near future regarding state and federal laws on issues such as the legalization of marijuana, which has happened recently in several states, most of them out west.

“Hardly any assaults don’t involve drugs and alcohol. People get out of control, tying up lots of court time,” Rodenberg said. “Problems get solved when communities band together, creating networks. It’s like team sports. It takes lots of people working together to win. I think today’s youth have a lot more temptations today than when I was young. I think it’s wonderful to have this (LOL) program today. It has funding challenges but it needs to go forward. Stay engaged with these issues. It’ll help the community in many ways.”

Other summit workshops discussed leadership, distracted and drunk driving, suicide and mental health issues among teens, bullying and depression.

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Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at

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