A group of Lompoc middle-schoolers gathered on a tarmac at the Lompoc Airport on Thursday afternoon for a unique art project.
The project’s organizers are hopeful that the group’s experience will be as inspirational as its canvas was unusual.
The 17 students, who ranged in age from 12 to 14, painted various images on a small Cessna 182 as part of the SafeLaunch organization’s “Flight Above Addiction” program. The project’s mission was to highlight the danger early exposure to addictive substances can have on a developing brain.
Studies cited by SafeLaunch co-founders Ron Cuff and Janet Rowse show that children under the age of 15 are 6.5 times more likely to become addicted to a substance than an adult. Cuff and Rowse’s goal is to stop kids from even trying drugs/alcohol.
“You’ve got to get to the kids by sixth through eighth grade, because if you don’t get to them before then, it’s too late,” Cuff said. “A lot of people think it’s a rite of passage for kids to experiment (with drugs and/or alcohol), but that’s really not acceptable.”
This was the fourth “mission” for the “Flight Above Addiction” program since its inception last year. Previous stops included Santa Barbara, Camarillo and Santa Maria. Cuff, who owns the plane used in the project, and Rowse plan to expand the service to Carlsbad next week.
“We want to get the word out about the risks (with addiction) because most people don’t know about the young brain and how it develops,” Rowse said.
The 17 kids who took part in Thursday’s painting did so through the Lompoc Boys & Girls Club. Of the group, 11 were from Lompoc Valley Middle School’s After-School Education and Safety (ASES) program and six were from the Boys and Girls Club’s teen center.
Rachel Hom, a director with the Northern County Volunteer Corps, which coordinated the event with the Boys and Girls Club, said the message of the program was particularly timely for the Boys and Girls Club.
This is national Boys and Girls Club Week, and the local club has been celebrating a different facet of positive growth throughout the week. Thursday’s theme was leadership and character, which fit nicely with the plane-painting project.
“This is really about making great decisions for yourself so you can become the leader you want to be,” Hom said.
One of the students who took part in the project was 14-year-old Isaac Chavez. The LVMS student said that he doesn’t personally know of anyone in his peer group who is experimenting with addictive substances — “not yet, maybe when I’m older,” he said — but he acknowledged that the message was important.
Chavez and a couple of other members of his group painted a falcon, which is the LVMS mascot, near the plane’s nose. They added a large number “6” next to it, representing the aforementioned study that Cuff and Rowse shared with the students before they began painting.
Cuff said he typically leaves the artwork, which is done with water-soluble paints, on the plane for a week or two. He admitted to getting some strange looks at the airport due to his custom paint jobs. “People go, ‘Whoa,’” he said with a laugh. “It’s something they’ve never seen before.”
Hom agreed that the overall theme of the project was an important one for the young students.
“We’re hearing horror stories about kids being exposed to (drugs) at younger and younger ages,” she said. “We’ve got stories about 6-year-olds being exposed to marijuana for the first time. That’s scary and destructive. If we don’t talk about it, they’re not gonna learn about it. So we have to have this communication and these programs in place.”
At previous stops, Cuff and Rowse would typically host a presentation in a classroom setting before going out to paint the plane. Because this was their first weekday event, and they had to begin after school let out, they didn’t have time for that part of the program on Thursday. Rowse said they are planning to return to the Lompoc Boys and Girls Club at a later date for that sit-down session.
Hom said that having to break the project up into two days wasn’t such a bad thing.
“We know that teenagers have trouble absorbing information sometimes without repetition, so it helps,” she said. “The more they hear the message, the more likely they are to get the message.”
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