Like many high schoolers, Riley Blythe felt the opposite of powerful: she was a shy, admittedly narrow-minded freshman without a great understanding of the world and community around her. She didn’t feel comfortable speaking publicly or confident in crowds. But, when Riley heard about the community prevention program Operation Snowball, she joined during her sophomore year to help deepen her understanding. Throughout the program, she became more aware of her community’s needs and built her confidence along the way.
Flashback to 1977, several Rockford, Illinois students attended a week-long program with Illinois Teen Institute. Inspired by messages of youth empowerment to make healthy decisions, the students created Operation Snowball to share what they learned at a local level. Today, the program does exactly that. The message of student empowerment, healthy decisions, confidence and community connectivity snowballed across the state of Illinois and now has over 55 chapters.
When Riley joined Operation Snowball, she was nervous she wouldn’t fit in but explained at Operation Snowball, “There was a feeling of genuine acceptance. Taking you in and not judging you, and that is really hard to find and you can find that at Snowball.” Riley loved Operation Snowball for the confidence it gave her and the connections she made.
Operation Snowball provides the opportunity to make connections with the community, students, and adults. High schoolers partner with adults to lead groups for 5th-8th graders. The adult-student partnership is a key aspect to the program; it helps high-schoolers develop leadership skills as they teach younger students and creates a positive adult relationship which helps prevent addiction. They empower students to make healthy decisions and give them the opportunity to express themselves at events and through campaigns.
Riley remained active in Operation Snowball throughout her high school career and went on to teach the younger groups. Fifth and sixth graders are a part of Operation Snowflurry and seventh and eighth graders are a part of Operation Snowflake. The groups are led by Operation Snowball staff, like Riley, who are juniors or seniors in high school, and they teach teamwork, confidence, and prevention.
Although there are many chapters throughout the state, two things are consistent. There is always the adult-student partnership, and the group identifies specific needs for their community and acts upon it. One chapter noticed a need to unite a community. Operation Snowball created an event called United PACT (Peace, Acceptance, Community, Tolerance). The students passed out the same t-shirt but in different colors to everyone involved, representing that every person is different but all can be united. Just like the snowflakes of a snowball.
Riley still works at Operation Snowball as the Prevention Program Coordinator. She no longer describes herself as an introvert, and she’s comfortable with public speaking. “I grew up in this program, it helped me find my plan, and showed me my passion,” explains Riley. She continued her studies in social work to learn more about adolescents, how to empower students, engage them in comprehensive prevention programs, and prepare them to weather the storms that life can bring.
Operation Snowball was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.