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(photo by Jesse Webster)

When I write these columns I’m often blessed with the company of Oscar, a gregarious golden retriever seizure alert dog who belongs to a neighbor of mine. Given our daily walks, I suppose I’m in charge of Oscar’s exercise regimen. And given the attention Oscar receives I suppose he’s in charge of my social life. Oscar’s so drawn to pretty women, and vice-versa, that I call him Oscar Bardem (after Javier Bardem).

Among the many friends I’ve developed this way is Susie Spain, a co-founder, along with other activists and philanthropists, of Angels at Risk. AAR is a Santa Monica-based nonprofit which, for the past 14 years, has created a haven for teens and families coping with substance abuse.

Open to the public, and free of charge, a typical weekly AAR meeting attracts 40 to 65 “angels” ages 11 to 18 and about 30 to 45 parents. Over the years, AAR has helped thousands of families in a time of crisis.

At the nadir of her own journey with addiction, Spain decided that one day she’d help other kids and families.

“When I was growing up, the problem was viewed as all about the child and not the family. It was a relentless struggle and a lonely journey,” Susie said. “But if parents could just get involved, it evens out the pressure on the child.”

Most of the kids in attendance are from Santa Monica or nearby communities, but they can be from anywhere, from Inglewood to Malibu. As Susie points out, “Kids from different backgrounds find they have the same feelings and it creates a bond between them.”

The involvement of the family is a key to Angels at Risk’s success.

“My belief is that an addiction problem in a teenager is a family problem,” Susie noted. “If parents are willing to take responsibility and say, ‘I might have helped you get here,’ or at least say ‘I’m going to help you get through this,’ it gives the child a great chance to make it.”

While declining in recent years, teen drug and alcohol abuse in America is still at alarming levels. In 2010, more than 1.3 million teens ages 12 to 17 were dependent on or abused illicit drugs. The president’s 2008 report indicated that teens view abusing prescription and over-the-counter drugs as safer than street drugs and thus OK. In California, eight in 10 felons sent to prison abused drugs or alcohol in their teenage years.

Angels At Risk facilitators talk with parents about various issues for a teen at risk and suggest counseling by a trained therapist. As Spain puts it, “If you have a family in a room with a third person, a child will feel more acknowledged seeing that someone is listening and trying to understand.”

A powerful tool at AAR is “Notes from the Heart/Love Notes.” Parents and teens write to each other, telling what went well that week, what went wrong, what needs to be worked on, and what is their wish from the heart.

Warning signs of substance abuse include staying out late, anger, failing grades and lack of communication. If any of this sounds familiar or you know a family in crisis, phone Angels at Risk at (310) 457 1421. Or go to AAR’s website (www.angelsatrisk.org). Thanks to AAR you are not alone.

Well, that’s it for this week. Oscar’s looking at me as though we’re late for his walk, which we are. (I readily admit that most days it’s not clear who is walking whom.) I can only wonder who we’re going to meet today.

Beginning Sept. 26, Angels at Risk meetings are held every Monday at Santa Monica High School in room T-109 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Jack can be reached at Jnsmdp@aol.com.

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