INNISFAIL – At the age of just 10 Lena Damgaard has prepared herself well on the dangers ahead of her beyond the current innocence of her Grade 5 class.

“If you know these things you can be more responsible in life because not knowing these things can get people seriously hurt, or too much alcohol can kill you,” said Damgaard. “Resistance strategies are important to say no to smoking and drugs because they can also kill you. And bullying is dangerous.”

Damgaard was one of about 25 Grade 5 students who graduated the 10-week D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program on March 22 at St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Catholic School.

Her class, headed by teacher Dana Lacombe, was the fifth one this year to have young students graduate from the D.A.R.E. program.

That includes Damgaard’s class, and four other Grade 5 classes at Innisfail Middle School that reintroduced D.A.R.E. after trying the similar Botvin LifeSkills Training Program for a few years.

In total, about 125 Innisfail Grade 5 students are new graduates of D.A.R.E., which was first developed by law enforcement and school officials in 1983 as a formal way of introducing alcohol and drug use information to young people, and to lower the rate of substance abuse in the future.

“The issues they (students) learn and talk about in D.A.R.E. are a vital part of things they’re going to experience growing up, and the different issues and circumstances they’re going to come across in life that they don’t necessarily learn in school or in any other environment other than the D.A.R.E. program,” said Lacombe. “It’s really nice that it comes from somebody else besides their teacher, such as a police officer. I just feel like it has more impact.”

Innisfail RCMP Const. Craig Nelson, the detachment’s community schools resource officer, has led the program at local schools for the past five years, including through the challenging restriction-filled pandemic school years.

Nelson believes he and the program are making a difference.

“We don’t really measure the difference, obviously but I see the difference in the kids in that we know each other. We have a relationship and we can have a discussion about things because I taught them there,” said Nelson, who expressed “heartfelt” gratitude for D.A.R.E. program sponsors Innisfail & District Victim Services and Central Alberta Co-Op.

“We talk about the positive pieces. Are kids that are struggling going to still make bad decisions? Of course they will. But every little bit of education helps.”

Nelson said the most important component of the D.A.R.E. program for him is relationship building with the kids.

“It’s to help break down the barriers between kids and police so that kids recognize and know that the police’s goal is to keep people safe, and that includes them,” said Nelson. “We want to look after our kids and we want them to know that we’re here to support them and help them grow and help them make good decisions. If they don’t make those good decisions, we’re here to help them through that too.”

There was a clear celebratory and proud atmosphere that filled Lacombe’s classroom on March 22.

Her students not only listened to Nelson but to presentations from four of their peers.

These were presented to put an exclamation mark, from peer to peer, on the dangers of alcohol, drugs, tobacco and bullying, as well as the strategies learned over the past 10 weeks on how to successfully deal with each of them.

“We just learned a lot about how things are dangerous and how to make them less dangerous and be more responsible,” said Damgaard, adding the program had a positive impact on her. “It taught me a lot about being responsible and making better choices.”

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