I attended a conference today hosted by RI Student Assistant Services (RISAS), which is a program that works in substance abuse prevention in the state. They're celebrating their 30th anniversary and had a half-day conference with two incredible keynote speakers, Bertha K. Madras (who recently served on a panel in the Vatican to advise the Pope and also works with the White House to advise policies) and Dr. Ruth Potee, a physician and addiction expert.
I want to note that there are few times in my life where I have been so engaged in a lecture that if someone had tapped me on the shoulder, I would have jumped. I was hanging on their words. Both of these keynote addresses were astounding; after listening to Madras speak for only 45 seconds, it made complete sense to me that she would be the person giving advice to the Pope. The sound of her voice alone holds all wisdom. She is incredibly accomplished and brilliantly smart--pioneering research at Harvard Medical School, authoring and editing over 200 papers, chapters, and books on neurobiology and the biology of addiction--and yet she was so easy to listen to and to follow. She's capable of advising others because she doesn't use jargon as a weapon, but rather makes her talks accessible to everyone, from researchers to guidance counselors to high school teachers. And her findings on marijuana addiction were startling and frightening. Her call to action was not one of a "War on Drugs," but rather a preservation of the greatest tool of human existence, the human brain.
The second keynote speaker, Potee, introduced herself is "far less exquisite than Madras...but I'd be that person you'd like to have at a bar fight." And this physician is one of the most grounded, forward-thinking, brilliant (yet down to earth) people I've ever listened to who actually gets it. She understands people, young people and teenagers especially, and she knows how where our biggest problems are. I've never been so equally in awe and terrified as I was today listening to these women speak about marijuana and opioid addiction, how they affect brain development, what the triggers for addiction are, and the devastation and potential long-term effects caused by using them. So much of what I thought I knew was blown out of the water today, and I felt incredibly empathetic towards young people who truly are the victims here. I wish I could have recorded their speeches and re-played them for everyone I know. Those are the kinds of talks that change minds and change hearts and create calls to action.
So, there was that. I didn't think I was going to be mindblown at a work conference today.
In between the keynote addresses, I went to a workshop taught by a former theatre actress who is now living in Rhode Island teaching kids to value themselves, to find their sparks and their purpose, and to nurture healthy growth via the Search Institute's REACH program. The speaker hosted a summer camp for kids who were falling through the cracks, perhaps being ignored in the school system and not really fitting in, and they did the most amazing activities with them. They interviewed one girl, perhaps 12 years old, to ask "What does a 'spark' mean to you?" and she said, "It's what you love; it's the thing you know you were meant to do."
As an exercise, we all took some time to think about our own sparks, and how to nurture kids into living more fulfilled lives by being their champions. It was uplifting and inspiring, and it helped me to realize that "writing" may not necessarily be my spark (although I enjoy it some of the time, clearly). But my motivation is storytelling, making people laugh or think deeply or appreciate something otherwise overlooked. I want to open new worlds by sharing mine, and in so doing, brighten someone else's day.
If writing gets me there, that's when I love writing. But meeting someone on a hike in the middle of New Zealand and bonding over a shared love of gelato is equally exciting for me. It's all about connection.
Humans are interesting that way, no?
Thus, today's gratitude is the awakening within of how great a need we have in this day and in this country to protect, nurture, and support those who are susceptible to substance abuse. If we have the knowledge (<--so important), and the compassion (<--equally important), to reach out and be champions for those who need us, maybe we can change the trajectory. Maybe we can help the future generations find what they are meant to do and live to pursue it.