AZTEC — A drug-prevention group visited Park Avenue Elementary fifth grade students Thursday to teach them about the dangers of drugs.

About 200 fifth graders sat attentively in rows on the floor of the cafeteria and listened to an interactive presentation that carried a simple message -- don't do methamphetamines.

What might otherwise have been easily mistaken for a routine afternoon assembly was distinguished by the fact every student was wearing a white T-shirts emblazoned in a blue in red battle cry -- "Don't Meth With Us!"

Paul McQueary, the head of the foundation, sprinted up in front of the students and began with a question.

"How many of you have heard of or know someone who has tried meth?" he asked. Nearly every fifth grader's hand shot up.

"How many of you have seen a drug dealer?" Again, a clear majority of hands raised without the slightest hesitation.

A natural speaker with a warm personality, McQueary held the attention of every child with his passionate and urgent message. The Kentucy native's Southern manner easily bridged the generation gap with a presentation he believes will save lives.

He leaned in close and asked a question, offering a toy prize for the correct answer.

"Who's the hardest person to say no to?" he asked, to a sea of eager hands held high.

"Your mom?" one child offered.

"No, but that's a good guess," McQueary answered.

"A police officer?" came another guess from the second row.


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Finally, a girl near the back who had waited quietly, brought a beaming smile to McQueary's face.

"Yourself," she said.

The prize was hers and McQueary went on to remind the students that the pressure to do drugs will only be neutralized by both an awareness of the ravages drugs can cause and the confidence to make positive choices.

The foundation, "We Are the Future - Don't Meth with Us," is a project started six years ago by the San Juan Rotary Club to deal with high rates of methamphetamine use in the county.

According to a letter by Traci Neff, an administrator for San Juan County Juvenile Services, illegal drug use by juveniles in the county has declined by 64 percent in that time, a step in the right direction and validation of McQueary and the foundation's efforts.

We have to be patient and keep spreading the message to this vulnerable age group because we've essentially lost several generations of kids to drug addiction," McQueary said. "We have got to break the cycle."

Principal Tatia Fernandez said she was a bit surprised to bring kids as young as 10 to a presentation on illegal drug use. But keeping her students informed on the inherent dangers and damage of meth and other hard street drugs makes the project invaluable, she said.

"It's a wonderful project," Fernandez said. "Meth and other drugs are a countywide concern, so we want to make sure our kids have the tools they need to avoid the tragic outcomes drug use represents."

Jill McQueary, a foundation board member, said the program now reaches as many as 3,200 children each year around the county.

"When we started, meth (use) rates were alarming, but we still seek to educate kids on what drugs there are, what addiction looks like and how best to avoid drug use," McQueary said.

The presentation lasted less than an hour and featured engaging exchanges by Scott Michlin of San Juan College and Aztec schools superintendent Kirk Carpenter. A skit on the harmful ingredients for meth was led by Dr. Bob Lehmer and two student volunteers who pulled hazardous substances - including drain cleaner, brake fluid, antifreeze, and others - out of a shopping bag.

"Would you ever want to put this stuff in your body?" Lehmer asked, a young boy beside him hoisting up a container of paint thinner.

"No way!" came the response.

The children were all handed pledge cards on which they were to write what they were going to say in response to an offer to try drugs. They also received pencils and rubber wristbands bearing the foundation's tagline and website address. As they filed back to their classrooms, a child slipping on the wristband told the girl in front of her, "Cool band. And I already've got the saying memorized."

That's the kind of response McQueary wants. After refining the presentation over the years, he says the foundation's efforts are spreading across the country, into Canada as well as into far-flung communities in New Zealand, Australia, and Nigeria.

The foundation is on Facebook and has launched its own website at "dontmethwithus.com" that offers free tutorials for other groups to apply in their communities.

"We are giving these kids a chance, with a boost in the right direction, so we can stop drugs from ruining their lives," McQueary said.