Pouring a cold one or grabbing a glass of wine is normal for many, but that normalcy of alcohol has now trickled down to our teens.
“Kids are drinking on average as young as 12-years-old here in our county (Hidalgo County), which is younger than the state average,” said Vianca Vieyra who is a coordinator with Unidad Coalition.
Unidad Coalition is a program under Behavioral Health Solutions. It’s a state-funded program that focuses on creating environments free from problems associated with drugs and alcohol. Vierya adds that the Hispanic culture in the Rio Grande Valley plays a role in underage drinking.
“Many times in our culture we also do use alcohol as a way to cope and deal with our own stress,” said Vieyra. “When kids start dealing with that, they don’t know other ways to deal with it. They turn to alcohol or other drugs and they’re like, ‘Oh. I saw my mom or dad dealing with it this way. This is the way I should do it’.”
That way of coping becomes a family cycle.
“It’s my culture also. I’m Hispanic. Growing up I can relate to that because there was a lot of drinking in my family. I understand and I can relate to that,” said Maritza Lara, the coordinator for Weslaco Police Department’s First Offender Program.
For the past six months, Lara has been working with nearly 30 young people who have been arrested for the first time after being caught with drugs or alcohol.
“The facts have shown and studies show that if you do start using alcohol at the age of 15, more than likely you develop a use for another illicit drug,” Lara said.
To prevent that, the program gives teens a chance at a fresh start. Lara sets them up with counselors, makes sure they attend school, show improvement in their grades and that they are dedicated to changing their lives around.
To continue targeting the issue, Weslaco police take it even a step further, by holding adults accountable.
In late 2019, Weslaco city commissioners passed a social host ordinance. With that, adults who are caught hosting parties where minors are consuming alcohol can face penalties.
“We’ll charge for how many police units went. How many fire units went. How many EMS units went,” said Weslaco Police Chief Joel Rivera. “That is all to the resident. The homeowner or whomever is leasing the property has to reimburse the city for the response.”
It’s an ordinance Unidad Coalition is pushing more cities to pass. In addition to Weslaco, city leaders in Alton and Palmview have passed a social host ordinance.
“Our goal is for parents to kind of have that sense of empowerment and also accountability,” Vieyra said.
For more information on Unidad Coalition and the free events they host for the community, visit the Behavioral Health Solutions website at www.bhsst.org.