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EPIC Pals Program Uses New Approach for Drug Abuse Prevention

Breanne Bleichroth/KRCU
EPIC Pals mentor Yong Zhu, left, EPIC Pals mentee Luke Clinton, right, and Casey the dog, front, worked together throughout the EPIC Pals Program.

  Sitting in a corner of the Girardot Center basement, teen Luke Clinton is waiting--waiting for his main girl, Casey. With a brown nose, a big smile and large floppy ears she’s far from your average girl. Casey’s a dog.

The two were brought together through the Early Prevention Impacts Communities Coalition program EPIC Pals. The program works to build protective factors in at risk youth like impulse control and good decision making in order to prevent substance abuse. As a result, the youth are able to use those same skills to build healthy relationships with their dogs.

“Research tells us that when young people have these things, they are more likely to be healthy young people and not abuse substances like alcohol and tobacco and other drugs,” said Shelly Wood, project coordinator of the EPIC Pals program.

For more than 30 years, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program--or D.A.R.E. has taught youth the importance of abstaining from drugs. However, Wood said with the Pals program it’s not about the old school “don’t do drugs” approach, but rather the bond between man and his best friend.

In a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37 percent of Missouri youth regularly engaged in risky behaviors like drinking alcohol, while 21 percent smoked marijuana. But recently, those numbers took a dip. Wood said programs like Pals are helping.

“We are trying to use that human animal bond to build good qualities in the kids like empathy and compassion and dedication to service by focusing on that bond between people and animals to help them to be healthier young people that will avoid engaging in those risky behaviors,” said Wood.

The youth and their dogs are partnered with mentors that serve as a guide through the training process. Before the program both Clinton and Casey had a hard time focusing on everything, and if something was hard Clinton would give up.

“With Casey, I just wanted to finish it out and see if I was able to make a difference in actually see what I can do in the end that was just kind of the light at the end of the tunnel,” Clinton said. “I just wanted to see if I could complete it.”

Yong Zhu, Cliinton’s EPIC Pal mentor said during the program she saw a lot of growth in him.

“Luke said he didn't have patience and it was difficult for him to stay focused, but really he was doing great with both patience and staying focused,” Zhu said.

Recently, Casey’s current foster family told Zhu and Clinton how much that bond has made a difference in the dog’s behavior.

“When they told Casey, 'oh, we're going to see Luke and we're going to PALS,' Casey somehow knows this word and Casey shows her excitement,” Zhu said. “I think she really likes Luke and they enjoy the time they can spend together.”

Clinton said while the learning process has been beneficial, his favorite part of the Pals program is knowing that the training he’s giving Casey will give her a chance to start a new life in a forever home.

Full disclosure: Early Prevention Impacts Community is a KRCU sponsor.


Breanne Bleichroth was a student reporter for KRCU in 2016.