SAM whizzes across town to various areas of the city, encouraging kids to "say no to drugs" and to join the TEAM, a group of Talented, Educated and Makin' It youths. The antidrug van, called the Substance Abuse Mobile, is equipped with educational aids designed to alert teen-agers about the hazards of substance abuse.
The van is one phase of a $233,000 health promotion effort sponsored by the District public schools and the Commission on Public Health, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services Association (ADASA). At 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, more than 2,000 children are expected to follow SAM in a two-mile "Walk Away Thon" to protest drug abuse. The walkers will include TEAM members and youngsters who have signed a pledge to stay away from drugs.
The group will start at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue downtown, pass 14th and Clifton streets, one of the city's heavy drug trafficking areas, and end at Meridian Hill Park at 16th and Euclid streets NW.
Pat Patterson, a march coordinator, said, "It's not enough to have the kids walk away from something; you have to give them something in return."
"The whole initiative is to create a network for children across the city and to promote good health," she said. "The TEAM concept . . . gives them a sense of belonging."
The Koba Institute, a local public relations firm under contract by ADASA, implemented the program last year to supplement drug prevention information provided by the schools. Although the target group is children between the ages of 9 and 13, organizers said they have received requests from a variety of groups.
Pat Dunlap, acting project director at Koba, said the mobile classroom has its advantages. "Within a standard classroom structure, it's hard to get the attention of a group of elementary school students. But if you present something new and exciting and invite them to experience a totally new environment for an hour, you've got them."
Mahmoud Baptiste, coach of the TEAM and driver of the SAM van, has for the past year made daily visits to more than 180 public schools in the District. He uses puppets, audio-visual presentations and straightforward instruction from inside the 25-seat van. This year 3,200 young people joined the TEAM, he said.
"My message is not a good one. I don't speak, I attack," said Baptiste, 40. "We are too liberal when it comes to drugs and I believe we've got to be a little more strict and conservative with these kids."
Baptiste said his deep commitment to SAM stems from personal experiences. Drugs were prevalent in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood where he grew up. He said he left his hometown for Washington to "escape a bad environment." Later, he returned to New York as a corrections officer and saw his brother and cousin jailed. Baptiste said both were drug abusers.
That experience motivated him to return to Washington in the early 1970s as a drug rehabilitation and treatment counselor. Now he is devoted to preventing the problem.
"Some of these kids who sell and use drugs are nice, respectable, well-liked young people. I've even had some of them in my house," he said. "Substance abuse crosses all racial, economic and social barriers."
He added that for many young people, selling drugs is enticing when they see their peers with fancy cars and expensive clothing. "They say to themselves, 'Why do I have to work . . . ?' I'm trying to change that attitude."
George McFarlane, who administers the health promotion contract for ADASA, said, "Our greatest hope is that we will get the message across to children who have not used drugs, but are considering attitudes about it. They need constant reinforcement, just like a commercial. SAM or the city or teachers alone cannot solve the drug problem. A big responsibility falls on the parents and the family."
Carey Carter said she is glad to expose her six children to something other than their drug-infested environment at 15th and Girard streets NW. Carter, whose children are TEAM members, said, "It shows my kids that they don't have to live life with drugs . . . . "
One of her daughters, Celena, 10, said, "I'm having lots of fun and I get to do a lot of things with my friends."
Celena and the other TEAM members have taken the Substance Free Team Pledge:
"As a member of SAM's team, I pledge to maintain proper respect for myself, my family and all members of my community; I will follow all rules that help maintain the safety of my neighborhood and community; I will avoid any behavior that would impair my health or mental well-being; I will try to be an example of a good citizen of the District of Columbia; I will work to improve the quality of life for all residents of the city; and I will work toward a substance-free D.C."