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FARMINGTON — More than 15,000 San Juan County fifth-graders have gotten the message — meth ruins lives.

Five of those students presented their winning poems and videos Thursday at the Don't Meth With Us meth awareness essay and multimedia competition. More than 150 essays, short stories and poems were submitted.

"When you hear the word meth, what comes to mind?" third-place winner Santiago Acosta read from his essay. "Selfishness, sadness, loss, fear, disgust, anger, death. Meth is a drug that destroys your entire life."

For the last seven years, an anti-meth group has taken its message to schools and organizations all over the county with a single goal: preventing young people from the highly addictive drug.

The foundation, We Are the Future — Don't Meth With Us, is a project started by Paul and Jill McQueary, along with the San Juan Rotary Club, to deal with high rates of methamphetamine use in the county.

The group is volunteer-run and receives financial support from area businesses and individuals.

Part of the funding is spent on the thousands of "Don't Meth With Us" T-shirts, wristbands, pencils and student pledge forms the group supplies to schools.
Jill McQueary right, gives Nayeli Navarrete, 11, a hug during the Don’t Meth With Us awards banquet at the Courtyard by the Marriott on Thursday.
Jill McQueary right, gives Nayeli Navarrete, 11, a hug during the Don't Meth With Us awards banquet at the Courtyard by the Marriott on Thursday. Navarrete won first place for a video project she submitted for the contest. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

For six years, the group paid $12,000 per year to screen an anti-meth commercial in area theaters. This year was the first year the group decided not to screen the commercial.

"The message in this community is out there," said Paul McQueary.

Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein, a Rotary member, spoke about his involvement and the positive change he has seen take hold in the county.

"I'm a retired law enforcement officer, and I've seen first-hand the devastating effects that drugs, and especially meth, have had on families," Eckstein said. "I have been going to Bloomfield and Blanco schools the last five years with this program, and it works. I don't know how many kids have been saved from going astray, but I can guarantee you that there has been a bunch."

Traci Neff, an administrator for San Juan County Juvenile Services for the last 18 years, confirmed the decline in meth use in the area.

"Over the past 10 years, our system has seen a significant decrease in the use of meth among teens," Neff said. "On average, we've had approximately 1 percent of our intakes self-admit to using methamphetamine one time or recreationally less than 0.5 percent. This was not the case 10 years ago. Juvenile arrests for methamphetamines were at about 8 percent."

Neff and volunteers made the case that the Don't Meth With Us program was helping keep area youth away from the drug.

"When we first started this program, we had no idea that it was going to have an impact but were going to give it a try," said Paul McQueary. "We knew we couldn't enforce, treat or intervene, so we took a look at prevention."

The McQuearys learned that fifth-graders were at a reachable, albeit surprisingly young, age to present information and warnings about the dangers of meth use.

"You know, as they say, If you can't bring Mohammed to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammed," said Paul McQueary. "And that's what we did, first by listening to the experts, by talking with and hearing from the kids."

After a Don't Meth With Us presentation at Esperanza Elementary School in March, fifth-grade teacher Jessica Shay was inspired to incorporate the topic into a creative assignment. Several of her 75 students were winners of the contest.

Every single student has a connection, directly or indirectly, to the drug," Shay said. "All the students were winners. They put their whole selves into their work, which was creative and imaginative, showing they learned not only about the dangers but how to make informed choices."

One of her students, Doveeden Moore, won first place for her poem personifying the drug as it warned of its allure and lethal impact.

"I like writing poems," Moore said. "After I saw the program, I wanted to write something that tells people about the dangers of drugs."

Two other students in Shay's class, Nayeli Navarrete and Johana Garcia, first cousins who grew up in Juarez, Mexico, both won cash prizes for their creative efforts.

Navarrete created and starred in a dramatic video showing a girl struggling to help a friend who has succumbed to meth.

Garcia created a slide presentation, narrated in English and Spanish, called "Las Drogas Destrullen," which translates to "Drugs Destroy You."

After seven years of running the program, Paul McQueary was as proud as a parent to note that the first class of fifth-graders his group had given a presentation to would be graduating seniors next year.

With help from area sheriffs, firefighters, elected officials, superintendents, teachers and business leaders, the nonprofit wants preventing meth use to take hold across every community in the country — and worldwide.

Paul McQueary said dozens of rotary clubs and other organizations have adopted the anti-meth program, including individuals who have used the presentation videos and information in as far-flung places as Canada, Australia and Nigeria.

John Horton, who lives in Springfield, Mo., is proof that the program is on the move. He met the McQuearys in Montreal in 2010 at the International Rotary Convention.

"When I learned about the meth problem and then what Paul and Jill (McQueary) were doing to prevent it in New Mexico, I wanted to learn about how bad it was in my neck of the woods," Horton said. "It turns out, Missouri is the capital of meth use in the United States, which came as a bit of a shock."

Since that time, Horton started Don't Meth With MO. and expanded the curriculum to include slideshows and a "Jeopardy"-based game to engage the more than 15,000 fifth- and seventh-grade students in Springfield schools. He deployed high school students to help with some of the presentation work, and he also has shared the program with 10 other rotary clubs around Missouri.

"We've lost a couple generations to drugs, but we've broken the cycle (of teen meth use) in this community. The program is now reaching from 100,000 to 150,000 kids across this country," Paul McQueary said. "We should be reaching millions, so if anyone has any ideas on how to do it, let us know."

James Fenton can be reached at; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt