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Game Changers youth substance misuse prevention program plans virtual summits; Justice joins as state ‘head coach’

MORGANTOWN — Game Changers, the statewide substance misuse prevention program for high schoolers, is going virtual this fall with four interactive summits.

Game Changer Coordinator Joe Boczek, of Morgantown, and WVSSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan, one of the driving forces behind the program, appeared with West Virginia’s Governor-Coach Jim Justice on Wednesday to announce the summits and Justice’s new role as state head coach of the program.

“Since the first day that I walked in the door as your governor, I’ve made a real commitment to helping our kids and that’s exactly what this program is going to do,” Justice said at the virtual briefing announcing the virtual summits. “Our kids are absolutely our greatest treasure in West Virginia. So we need to do all we possibly can do to make their lives the very best they can be.”

Joe Boczek

In a Thursday phone interview, Boczek defined Game Changers as “the adult-directed, youth-led prevention, peer-to-peer influence, positive youth development and community enhancement organization designed to educate, support and empower teens to make healthy choices as they prepare to be our leaders of tomorrow.”

The virtual regional summits will start in September. The state will be divided into four regions and the summits will feature some of the nation’s top trauma-informed speakers. Game Changers deals with opioid abuse, tobacco, vaping and alcohol.

Justice said that along with the summits, he will bring together representatives from all parties of Game Changers’ public-private coalition – including leaders in education, behavioral health, substance misuse prevention, nutrition, law enforcement, medicine, and business – for a team meeting at the Governor’s Mansion to fine-tune additional plans to develop the initiative into a full-scale, comprehensive prevention program.

Boczek said Game Changers offered live summits last year around that drew about 150,000 kids. They planned a series of seven live summits for this year but COVID changed the plan and they decided to go virtual. Because of the state’s spotty broadband, they know not all kids will be able to tune in live, so they’re looking at ways to make sure everyone can benefit. They’ll record them and put them on a disk but he also wants to talk to PBS about broadcasting them.

Bernie Dolan

“They’re actually going ot be better because it gives us more opportunity for kids to interact,” he said, with the speakers and with each other.

He gauged the success of their two-day September 2019 live summit by the reaction of the kids. During the course of each two-hour summit, only six to seven each day stepped out to use the bathroom. “When you don’t see that and you see those kids staying in their seats and being engaged and entertained, that tells you you’ve achieved. That’s what we’re going to try to do again.”

Beyond the summits, he said, they want to offer kids alternatives to substance misuse: community involvement, after-school activities, a life coach program for rising sophomores and juniors. The life coaches will work as peer-to-peer counselors and earn the designation of Game Changer champions plus three college credits.

Boczek also wants to take the program to other states, he said, to help kids across the country and to enhance the reputation of West Virginia.

Boczek, a Morgantown businessman, has led Game Changers under the direction of Doaln and WVSSAC, with additional input from Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch, Bureau for Behavioral Health Commissioner Christina Mullins, Office of Drug Control Policy Executive Director Bob Hansen, and State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch.

Game Changer is a cooperative effort between the governor’s office, the WVSSAC, the Department of Education, DHHR, the Office of Drug Control Policy, West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute, the state’s six prevention lead organizers, local, state, and federal law enforcement, and the education sector.

Private finaincial supporters include Walmart, PepsiCo, ParMar, Mountaineer Mart, and founding partner MVB Bank, along with education associates WVU and Marshall University, the University of Charleston and Pierpont Community and Technical College.

Dolan said at the Wednesday briefing, “Its been my pleasure to see so many differing groups in this coalition. We’re going to be able to deal with a lot of things.”

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