On a rainy September morning, 12 sophomores file into the Community Room, eyes half open, coffee cups in hand, and slump into plushy chairs. Will Slotnick greets several of them by name and fishes a meditation bell out of his briefcase. Students perk up upon recognizing its familiar ring, refocusing their minds and relaxing their bodies for the minute or two of silence before he begins.
“Let’s talk about drugs,” he grins.
Mr. Slotnick, a substance abuse prevention and wellness specialist, has been beginning this conversation at the Upper School (US) for 27 years. His aim has been to raise awareness about drug and alcohol use in the school community as well as to provide strategies for managing stress and making healthy decisions.
It’s a dream job, he said, and his journey to finding it began in 1990, the year he started working with students through Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD), a school-based substance abuse prevention nonprofit. Mr. Slotnick had planned to work with the program for just one year before attending a graduate program in engineering at MIT, but his ambitions soon shifted.
“I fell in love with working with teenagers because I struggled as a teen myself, and I wanted to give back since most people don’t reach recovery like I did,” Mr. Slotnick said, referring to his own substance abuse in high school and college. He is now in his 32nd year of sobriety.
Mr. Slotnick joined the school community at the request of Middle School Director Mary Dolbear and US Counselor Doug Newman as one of his first assignments for FCD. Eight years later, he became the director of FCD, pausing his lessons to take on an administrative role.
In 2009, Mr. Slotnick left the program to found his own, the Wellness Collaborative, and return to working with students in a classroom setting.
With the same goal as FCD, the Wellness Collaborative maintains a more holistic perspective, emphasizing healthy methods to alleviate stress rather than using scare tactics to steer youth away from substances, Mr. Slotnick said. The Newton native added that some of the techniques he teaches students, such as meditation, helped him with his own recovery.
“My approach changed from defining the problem of why substance abuse occurs to offering a real solution for kids by using a wellness-based approach,” he said.
Mr. Slotnick’s current program with the school spans from seventh to 12th grade and focuses on students entering their sophomore and junior years—a time when substance use often increases due to the pressure of managing grades, extracurriculars, and social lives, he said. This year, the program took place from September 12 to September 24.
Tenth graders engaged in three informal class-long conversations about drugs and alcohol, during which they listened to the perspectives of each other and Mr. Slotnick to learn more about issues around the substances. Their parents also attended a meeting with Mr. Slotnick about prevention and strategies to help their children manage stress.
Eleventh graders engaged in two student conversations focused on how to intervene with friends struggling with substances. Juniors also joined their parents for a round table night during which they discussed topics such as trust, parenting, stress, and college.
The other grades participated in similar conversations but in smaller doses. All students also had the opportunity to speak privately with Mr. Slotnick about their own substance abuse concerns and stress-related problems.
Many students expressed appreciation for Mr. Slotnick’s helping them understand the underlying causes of substance abuse rather than just listing the negative effects of drugs and alcohol.
“Will Slotnick is great because he focuses more on the causes of why kids do drugs, rather than why drugs are so bad,” Anya Chung ’19 said.
Mia Maginn ’19 agreed: “Mr. Slotnick presents himself in a very laid back fashion in which students feel comfortable in his presence and therefore feel comfortable going to him for advice.”
Mr. Neuman added that Mr. Slotnick—who also does work at schools like Belmont Hill, Nobles, and Rivers—reminds students to slow down amidst their fast-paced lives.
“Mr. Slotnick teaches invaluable strategies to help students maintain balanced lives,” he said. “He also reviews current trends around substances and is an important resource to the community.”
-— Talia Belz