Steamboat Springs The mother of a teenager killed after a night drinking in the Routt National Forest thinks her son might still be around if South Routt communities had more to offer teenagers.
"Kids have been going out in the woods for a long time - this wasn't the first time," said Kathleen Foos, 17-year-old Sam Hedemark's mother. Hedemark died with 19-year-old Christopher Fuller in an oil tank explosion near Chapman Reservoir. They were among a group of about 20 teens and young adults who had gone to the well site in northeast Rio Blanco County for a party.
"We need a skate park, a swimming pool or some kind of (recreation) center for these kids to go hang out at night," said Foos, who has established the South Routt Youth Fund in memory of Hedemark and Fuller to raise money for a wide variety of community activities.
Both teenagers had marijuana in their systems and blood-alcohol levels higher than the 0.08 percent legal limit for driving, prompting discussions about underage drinking in South Routt.
South Routt Superintendent Kelly Reed said the school district is devastated by the loss of Hedemark and Fuller. He said he hopes the tragedy moves parents to talk with their children about alcohol use.
"I haven't been in South Routt long enough to have a historical perspective, but my professional viewpoint is I see today's youth drinking at an earlier and earlier point," he said. "When I first started in education, I'd see young people start drinking at 14 and 15. I now see it as young as 10 in South Routt."
Reed said the district has a three-pronged approach in dealing with underage drinking, and he stressed the vast majority of students in his school district understand the inherent dangers in alcohol use.
"We go in, and we provide education programs for kids in the schools for alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse," he said. "Teaching and support staff are given instruction to spot signs of use, and we have counselors to deal with these type of things."
"Teen years are tumultuous enough with what you go through. Put alcohol into the mix, and you get grave consequences."
'Kids everywhere drink'
Randi Cruson, 26, was one of 16 teens and adults present when the gas tanks exploded. Cruson said she and her friends have been drinking out in the woods since she moved to Phippsburg eight years ago. She does not see the explosion as an indicator that South Routt has more or less of a teen substance abuse problem than any other community.
"I know there are a lot of people in Oak Creek that do have problems, but I don't think things are out of control," she said. "It's just the usual thing everyone in their teens goes through. Normal kids everywhere drink. This was a tragedy that could have happened to anybody."
A Routt County parent survey conducted in 2005 revealed 44 percent of parents believed it was hard for youths to get alcohol, while 52 percent of surveyed parents said they have never instructed their teenager to take alcohol from the home.
Cruson said finding alcohol when she was a South Routt teenager wasn't difficult and noted things haven't changed.
"I've heard you can just go down to the gas station and ask someone to buy it for you," she said. "I didn't do that, but I hear stories like that all the time."
Addressing the problem
Colleen Lyon, Routt County director for Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, said more can be done to curb teen drinking.
"There is a real need in Routt County of affordable and accessible after-school activities," she said. "There is a big chunk of our youth in our community that don't have a place to go or things to do. In the rural areas, especially in South Routt and Hayden, there are limited options."
Lyon said there is no single solution to combat underage drinking, but she stressed the community needs to look at all the variables that contribute to the problem, rather than resorting to finger pointing."
"I think it starts with giving youths more of a voice in our community," she said. "Not looking down on the youth. I think the bottom line is they need something - an opportunity - there are passions to be sparked."
Dr. Dawn Obrecht, a Steamboat Springs-based addiction specialist, said cutting off the source of alcohol won't curb underage abuse until the community begins to understand why teens drink and use drugs.
"The only reason to use a mind-altering drug is to change how you feel," she said. "Happy and joyful doesn't seem to be sufficient, and happiness and joy must be accentuated by a mind-altering drug. It's a disease of feeling."
Lyon said the deaths may put a spotlight on South Routt, but the problem persists throughout the county, including Steamboat Springs.
"Everybody in the community contributes to the issue," she said. "Do the youths feel valued in their community? Do they feel their community values tourism more than their youth? Do they have role models? What are the social norms in the community towards alcohol? You can't simply address one, blame one, or look for solutions on one of them.
"It's hard in the rural communities because of funding, but there are already some organizations out there working with youths. There's peer mentoring, Partners in Routt County, Grand Futures, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the school system."
The issue is particularly difficult for parents of teens, Lyon said.
"Two teenagers died, and there is the attitude out there that this is just what happens," Lyon said. "But there is also the attitude that parents want to know how to address the problem."
Foos said she had spoken to her son about alcohol, but it's difficult to preach an alcohol-free lifestyle when other adults in the community buy it for teens.
"Whether it's your first time drinking underage or your 50th time, somebody might die," she said. "People are going out there and buying liquor and passing it down to the little ones. I hope people who see a kid take a beer out of their cooler feel like it's their responsibility."