DORSET — The Dorset School’s science instructor, Michael Schaeffer, never saw it coming. After the usual hurried lunch at his school desk, Schaeffer opened his computer to check for email messages. That is how he learned he had been designated as the recipient of the Prevention Champion Award for Southwestern Vermont.
Schaeffer’s first thought — “What did I do?”
He did a whole lot in a very short time. Just last fall, Schaeffer volunteered as the school’s Refuse to Use (RTU) representative. The Dorset School Principal Rosanna Moran was thrilled.
“Michael is a talented teacher,” said Moran. “His ability to connect with kids and adults made him the perfect person to do this job.”
RTU creates learning opportunities for middle and high school students to understand the health risks of substance abuse. The idea is to design community-based activities that bring students and parents together for healthy conversations and lessons about the high-stakes risks of drugs and alcohol use and abuse. The focus is on prevention. Teach it before bad habits and peer pressure take hold.
The Dorset School (TDS) is part of The Collaborative’s Refuse to Use Program, which is an incentivized substance misuse and asset building community program. The Collaborative is a local non-profit that oversees RTU programs serving 362 kids in eight area schools: TDS, Mountain School, Maple Street School, Manchester Elementary Middle School, Flood Brook School, Long Trail School, Burr & Burton Academy and Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School. For their efforts, students are awarded for their healthy choices by receiving a season pass to either Stratton Mountain, Magic Mountain, Riley Rink, or Viking Nordic Center.
The Collaborative’s Programs Coordinator, Natalie Philpot, knew Schaeffer was the right candidate for Dorset at their first meeting.
“Michael came to the session prepared with ideas,” said Philpot. “I could immediately see he believes in young people and would be a tireless advocate for their well being.”
Schaeffer delivered on that promise. In his first weeks as Dorset’s RTU Representative, he reached out to Els Van Woert of the Northshire Area Trail System (NATS). The plan was to recruit volunteers to help NATS complete the clearing of a mountain biking trail on Owl’s Head Town Forest. Over two days last November, 40 students and some 60 adults bonded over a project that served the greater good.
“It gave us time for healthy conversations about how we can support each other to stay safe,” said Schaeffer. “We also built something that can be used by our community for years to come.”
Schaeffer’s leadership on the bike trail project served as the centerpiece of Philpot’s letter nominating him for the Prevention Champion Award. On April 7, Schaeffer journeyed to Montpelier with Philpot and Moran to participate in a day celebrating Prevention Works! Prevention advocates of all ages rallied to meet with legislators and state decision makers, held workshops to share best practices, and celebrated the achievements of prevention organizations throughout Vermont. At the day’s grand finale, Schaeffer was formally honored as a Prevention Champion, along with eight other Vermonters for their work with youngsters across the state.
“The energy in Montpelier was so positive,” says Schaeffer. “To see so many people devoted to helping kids, just makes me believe we can make a difference when we try.”