Zac Parenti, a senior at Analy High School in Sebastopol, is on the front line of Sonoma County's campaign against teenage drinking.
He's familiar with the statistics that show nearly four out of 10 high school juniors are consuming alcohol and nearly three out of 10 are binging with five or more drinks in a row.
Binge drinking, deemed the most common underage alcohol consumption pattern, has become "a primary public health priority," according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report in 2011.
Sonoma County officials are concerned that binge drinking escalates during the teen years — from 3 percent of seventh graders to 13 percent of ninth graders and 27 percent of 11th graders — according to the latest countywide survey.
But they've also realized that many teens are deaf to the "do's" and "don'ts" coming from adults, even when the evidence abounds that alcohol can ruin, even end, young lives.
Nor does it help that many adults are willing enablers of teen drinking, believing it is a so-called "lesser evil." Or that alcohol is readily available to underage drinkers and that, some say, Wine Country culture celebrates alcohol.
The anti-drinking message must be transmitted from teen to teen, local officials say.
"We are working with youth to find their voice," said Donna Newman-Fields, alcohol and drug prevention coordinator for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.
There's evidence that the approach — part of a comprehensive alcohol and drug prevention program funded by annual grants of $350,000 since 2007 — is paying off.
"I think we have a model that works," said Lynn Garric, Safe Schools project director for the Sonoma County Office of Education.
Parenti, the 18-year-old president of Analy's Operation 1-4-1, said the best way is to make the message personal, "to share our life's experience," he said.
Parenti's story is compelling. Battling depression, he began self-medicating with alcohol and drugs at 13 and was addicted within a year, he said.
With help from family, friends and the Analy club, Parenti said he regained sobriety three years ago. "I'm pretty open about it," he said, regarding his willingness — and motive — for telling other teens his story.
"I've been through hell and back, and I don't wish it on anybody else," Parenti said.
Analy's student group operates under the umbrella of Project Success Plus, which serves about 11,000 high school students in the West Sonoma County, Cotati-Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale school districts.
One component of the multi-faceted education and prevention program, initiated in 2007, includes student clubs engaged in peer mentoring. Their target audience, however, is not necessarily their fellow students in high school.
Michael McCracken, the Analy club advisor and Project Success Plus program coordinator, recalls that in 2008 some students told him: "Mr. M., if you want to make a difference you've got to go to the middle schools."
Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the 3,457 Sonoma County high school juniors surveyed in the fall of 2011 said they had consumed at least one drink in their lifetime and 38 percent are currently drinking.
Nearly half (49 percent) of the juniors said they first tried alcohol between age 13 and 16, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey for 2011-12.
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