Anticipating an afterschool snack of brownies and frosted banana cake, a group of 10, 11 to 13-year-old girls sat around a long table in the cafeteria at Lewis and Clark Elementary School, glowing about the girls-only program that brought them together that day.

Maddie Sutton, a 12-year-old sixth-grader, praised Friendly PEERsuasion, the drug and alcohol prevention program that meets Tuesdays after she's done with class.

"It's very educational. We learn what to do, and not to do, about drugs and alcohol, and exactly how we can refuse," Sutton said.

Enthusiasm and energy practically radiated from the group, who had a tough time sitting still while taking turns talking about what they'd learned during the 15 one-hour sessions.

Courtney Holmes, 11, shared advice she'd give about how alcohol and cigarettes can harm your body. "Don't smoke and drink underage, it can really affect your health," she said.

Friendly PEERsuasion is a countywide program run by nonprofit LifeWorks Northwest, with help from local AmeriCorps volunteers. The program is making its way through all five school districts in Clatsop county - currently in Warrenton and soon starting in Knappa.

Julie Soderberg is a LifeWorks Northwest prevention specialist who coordinates multiple classes for the mental health and addiction agency. She said many factors point to why girls, especially, need this targeted help now.

"Girls are now out-drinking boys in this age group, and they get addicted faster than boys do," Soderberg said, citing the Oregon Department of Human Services' Healthy Teens 2008 Survey.

The program aims to teach girls the communication skills they'll need to use when making good choices about drugs and alcohol use in their teens and beyond. They learn about the risk factors involved with more commonplace drugs, like tobacco and marijuana, and less common inhalants and even "club drugs" like ecstasy and methamphetamine.

The Friendly PEERsuasion program was developed by Girls Incorporated, a national nonprofit organization that has advocated for girls since the Industrial Revolution. Soderberg and Meghan Halverson, the AmeriCorps volunteer leading the Astoria program, both received training at the Portland Girls Incorporated office. Funding comes from the Oregon Department of Human Services' mental health and addictions program.

Halverson said she's been inspired by the girls to make this her life's work.

"Teaching Friendly PEERsuasion and working with young girls has helped me decide that I want to go back to school to get my master's degree in social work and become a middle school counselor. These girls are definitely inspiring," Halverson said.

Halverson said girls at this age are particularly open to learning.

"They can have fun and be silly and still be kids and enjoy themselves. The majority of the girls were very attentive and engaged in activities and discussions," she said.

This week the girls worked in small groups, preparing presentations they'll give to classes of younger girls during Girls Summit, a day of learning for all fourth- to eighth-grade girls in Clatsop County to be held at Clatsop Community College May 21.

At Girls Summit, the girls will use some of the other life skills they've learned through the program, Halverson said.

"While the program does focus a lot on drug and alcohol prevention, it also teaches about good communication skills and ways to recognize and reduce stress. These are valuable skills for girls to learn at an early age," she said.

The program will continue through the end of the school year, Soderberg said, but beyond that, the future is still unclear, due to a lack of funding.

"We're always looking for donations," she said.

? Anyone interested in doing so can contact LifeWorks Northwest at (503) 338-6990.

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