Youth Drug Prevention Program in San Diego A Hit

Celebrity skater Tony Hawk has been a long advocate for Natural High



As kids enter their pre–teen and teen years, academic and peer pressures can get the best of them. In addition to turning to drugs and alcohol as an escape, today’s teens are spending a lot of time on social media, where they may learn about unsafe behaviors or be cyber bullied. According to the Pew 2013 Teens and Technology survey, 78% of kids ages 12–17 own a cell phone and three–quarters of that group say they access the internet regularly from cell phones or other mobile devices. The non–profit Natural High, based here in La Jolla, is helping millions of middle and high school students nationwide steer clear of the negative influences surrounding them, simply by encouraging them to pursue what they love. The organization is a leading voice in the national conversation about how to prevent youth substance misuse and educate kids about healthy alternatives. 

Natural High 

6310 Greenwich Dr #145, San Diego | (858) 551-7006 | naturalhigh.org

Entrepreneur and investment manager Jon Sundt founded Natural High over 20 years ago after losing both of his brothers to drugs. “I don’t want any parent to go through what my parents went through,” John remembered. Inspired to provide as many kids as possible with an alternative to the path his siblings could not escape, Jon started delivering his message at local middle schools, armed with his slide projector and two pro surfers. His mission was to encourage the students to discover, amplify and pursue their passion so they had a tangible reason to say no to drugs and alcohol.

Natural High now reaches eight million youth across all 50 states and aims to spark a generation of youth focused on pursuing their passions. The organization partners with over 40 celebrity ambassadors, from pro surfer Rob Machado to Grammy Award–winning band Switchfoot, San Diego Chargers Running Back Donald Brown and NBC’s The Voice winner Casadee Pope, who share their stories about what inspires them and the impact the choice to live drug–free has had on their success. These celebrity video interviews are paired with worksheets and discussion guides for educators and parents to ignite meaningful conversations with youth about their goals, values, role models, support networks and natural highs. Most notable, perhaps, is that these programs are all available online free of charge. 

Natural High invites youth to share their own stories on social media to inspire their peers and be a part of a living, breathing community. “It’s so important to focus on your skills and your talent and see how far that can take you,” said skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, a local favorite and longtime Natural High ambassador, who will be honored at the upcoming annual Natural High Gala on September 12th at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa. Teens can also join the Natural High street team, volunteering to advocate for the cause among their peers and connec with other like–minded youth at festivals like Vans Warped Tour in cities nationwide and the Switchfoot Bro–Am surfing competition in Encinitas. 

The organization has recently been helping teens launch student clubs, starting in San Diego area schools. The passion–driven message serves as a powerful icebreaker for conversations amongst students who may feel disconnected. Yanet Ibarra just graduated from Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, CA; though she first hesitated to join, she eventually became the club president. “Once kids started seeing their friends going to the meetings and liking it, they’ve been more open to joining in the various programs we run.” 

Another local student, Tierney Sheehan, founded a Natural High Student Club at Poway High School. Sheehan said, “Some think our club is an anti-drug group but it’s not. It’s a bunch of driven individuals supporting one another to follow their dreams.” Natural High has helped her realize that she can do anything she sets her mind to. Once a competitive swimmer, Sheehan is now exploring paddle boarding and developing her mentoring skills via the club. Ibarra and Sheehan have both designed club outreach activities to connect students and fundraisers to help those students without the financial means to buy equipment and supplies or pay for lessons to pursue their passions.

Motivational speaker, comedian and neuro–psychologist Matt Bellace, a Natural High partner based in New Jersey, explains why Sundt and his team have been able to have such an impact: “For one, it’s the visual appeal of their celebrity videos that draws kids in, speaking directly to them in an authentic way. It’s a hard thing to achieve since teens nowadays are exposed to so much media. It’s not easy to stand out.” Yet, the key to their success goes beyond the branding and to the way Natural High has carried the conversation to the next level, to the positive alternatives available for youth to embrace. They are pioneering the national conversation about pursuing one’s passion, providing the antidote to one–off informational school assemblies and to the standard “just-say-no” approach from the 1980’s War on Drugs era. Instead of “just–say–no,” Natural High inspires youth to just say yes to their passions and doing what they love.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the age of onset of drug use directly correlates with the rate of drug abuse and dependence. A key tenet of prevention is therefore to delay the age of first-time use as long as possible to decrease the likelihood of long term addiction. Natural High’s content is targeted to youth starting at the middle school level. Bellace confirms where part of the danger lies if teens are left completely to their own devices in face of peer pressures: “Teens don’t have the frontal lobe ability to walk away from precarious conversations or respond appropriately in some situations.” 

Dr. Valerie Rock, a local clinical psychologist who works with adolescents and their families dealing with substance abuse, agrees that early intervention is key: “We need to address issues well before they become a problem.” Rock knows from working with many families that it is all too common for parents to fear having conversations with their kids about drugs and alcohol. Many just hope schools will address it. Natural High offers a parent program that ties into the same content (lesson plans, worksheets, videos, and discussion guidelines) that teachers and administrators can access for online via its Natural High Education Network. These educators have provided invaluable feedback about what topics are resonating the most with students.

Experts like Rock and Bellace add that Natural High’s curriculum is highly effective in large part because it is based on prevention science research. It incorporates mindfulness–based techniques, which aid in stress reduction, and theories of resiliency, which outline risk factors and then provide protective factors (such as having a mentor in your life, learning good communication skills, becoming self-aware, playing a sport or having another community tether).

From the start, Sundt knew that the only way to increase desired behaviors in kids was to help them identify those positive alternatives. 94% of youth who participated in the Natural High program reported they were indeed choosing to live substance–free and pursue their natural highs. Sundt’s vision for Natural High is to continue expanding the programs to support even more students, educators and caregivers in communities across the country.

Natural High currently has programs in 271 middle and high schools across San Diego County. For information on hosting an assembly or starting a Natural High Student Club for the upcoming school year, visit NaturalHigh.org/join-us/schools. To buy tickets to the September 12th Gala, visit NaturalHigh.org/Gala