Kent County Youth Summit Empowers Youth to Reach Their Peak

by Elyse Wild | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus 

For nearly a decade, Denise Herbert has been equipping youth across West Michigan to rise above the influence of drugs and alcohol, effectuating their dreams and potential as they steer away from the pitfalls of substance abuse. 

“My favorite thing is impacting the lives of young people,” Herbert smiled. “I tell my staff, ‘If I can just touch one young life, I know I have done my job.’”

Herbert is the SUD Prevention Services Director of Network 180 and the founder of the Kent County Prevention Coalition (KCPC). On May 10, she, along with her staff and nearly 100 volunteers, will be at DeVos Place for the 8th Annual Above the Influence: Kent County Youth Summit. The summit brings together 1,300 middle school and high school students from across the county for a day of engaging with community leaders, learning how to think critically about their future, finding the courage to be their authentic selves, and developing leadership skills and tools to avoid drugs
and alcohol.

“It is a life-changing event for the kids,” Herbert said.

Herbert began working for Network 180 in 2005. It was then when she formed the Kent County Prevention Coalition, which became official in 2006. The coalition involves 25 member organizations representing 12 sectors— parents, businesses, media, schools/universities, youth-serving organizations, law enforcement, religious/fraternal organizations, civic/volunteer organizations, healthcare and government. 

Herbert developed the coalition’s strategic plan to reduce substance abuse and misuse in our communities based on hard data. They target youth alcohol and marijuana use and adult heavy drinking and tackle emerging issues, such as rising opioid use.

“We have a major focus on youth,” Herbert said. “Our belief is that if you get them young, it will minimize the number of adults in treatment. Research tells us that if you get family or a loving adult involved, and you let kids know that you are interested in them, that wards them away from substance use.” 

Eight years ago, KCPC launched the Youth Summit via a 30-minute long film introducing viewers to the concept of  youth substance abuse prevention. The movie premiered at Celebration Cinema and featured a town-hall style conversation. The following year, the first official Youth Summit was held at DeVos Place, the response to which Herbert describes as overwhelming; 700 youth attended the event, more than twice as many as she was hoping for. 

Denise Herbert 

“That showed me that we were on to something,” she said.

Today, Youth Summit sees more than 1,000 participants. Herbert emphasizes that the message isn’t focused solely on alcohol, tobacco and drugs, but rather on staying away from negative influences, whatever they may be, and “having the courage to stand up and walk away.” Rather than shaming or lecturing, the summit program is “aspiration-drive,” one that empowers youth to live their best lives as their authentic selves. KCPC is adamant about meeting students on their level, which they achieve by means of a Youth Coalition that works closely with the adult coalition. 

The Youth Coalition is made up of 20 youth who help plan the summit, and Herbert says their input is vital to the success of the event. The youth advise the adults on everything from workshop topics, opening and closing the event, video creation, giveaway prizes — and they create a new theme for each year. 

“Even though we extensively survey [attendees of the summit], it is this group of individuals who give us a good handle on what is going on in their world,” she expressed.

This year’s theme is Transformers: Influencers Unleashed. Workshops include The War Within, focused on body image; The World Is Yours, centered around planning for life after high school; “PRIME” Communication, which will help participants learn how to develop effective communication skills; and break out sessions for girls and boys, and much more.

Video footage from the 2017 summit shows the familiar halls of DeVos Place full of young Grand Rapidians smiling, laughing, dancing and engaging with speakers talking to them about respect, friendship, self-worth and rising above the influence of drugs and alcohol. The video is inspiring as it depicts youth becoming empowered to chart their own courses of success, to fulfill the destinies they set for themselves. 

Shanda Vaughn is a longtime Youth Summit volunteer and community youth educator at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

“It is hands down one of the best youth-centered and youth-driven coalitions in the area,” Vaughan said of the KCPC and Youth Summit. “I love seeing the youth being educated, encouraged and empowered in safe, fun atmosphere.”


When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, taking photos, listening to live music and spinning records.

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