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High School senior working to thwart drug, alcohol abuse in Jerauld Co.

Wessington Springs High School senior Sierra Swenson introduces South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley during a program on Wednesday about drug and alcohol abuse at the Springs Inn Cafe in Wessington Springs. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

WESSINGTON SPRINGS — One Wessington Springs senior is hoping to make a difference in her community by promoting awareness of drug and alcohol abuse.

On Wednesday night, Sierra Swenson hosted a presentation about the issue, featuring speakers Jerauld County Sheriff's Office Deputy Paul Sheldon and South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley.

The group spent the evening revealing statistics to the approximately 25 attendees and talking about the impact of drugs and alcohol, with Jackley, a 2018 governor candidate, serving as keynote speaker.

Jackley spoke at length about how to solve the drug abuse "epidemic" taking over South Dakota, highlighting the No Meth Ever campaign launched in July and Project Stand Up, an anonymous texting program that encourages members of the public to submit tips about illegal drugs.

According to Jackley, in the past six months, Project Stand Up has resulted in identifying 244 suspects in 69 jurisdictions in the state.

"When you look at opportunities to beat this, you look at prevention," Jackley said. "Everybody in this room has somebody that you love and care about that's affected by addiction. This is affecting every family and every community in South Dakota."

And to put the issue into perspective, Jackley said, South Dakota's top 10 prescription drugs equate to 1.063 million prescriptions annually. That is notable, he said, because that doesn't include prescription drugs being used illegally.

"That's intimidating," Jackley said. "When you have that many people in the state on prescription drugs, you really need to look at that."

Swenson put on the event as part of her Senior Experience Project, which is required of every Wessington Springs High School senior. Each year, Wessington Springs seniors are required to do a project that is of interest.

To Swenson, it's important to help her classmates prepare for the world outside of the "sheltered" community of Wessington Springs as they prepare to embark on their respective post-high school endeavors. Along with Wednesday night's presentation, a similar one was given to all of the students in the Wessington Springs district earlier in the afternoon.

"I had a friend last year who told me this story about how she went to her first college party and saw somebody doing cocaine," said Swenson, who plans to attend South Dakota State University and is hoping to become a pharmacist. "She didn't really know how to react and I think it's very important to have some kind of knowledge and background before we go off and don't have our moms and dads around to tell us what to do."

Sheldon took time, too, to emphasize similar points.

Sheldon is Jerauld County's drug dog handler who has worked with the department's dog, a Belgian malinois named Mack, since early this year.

Mack has been used several times this year and been successful, Sheldon said. And Jerauld County deputies have seen it all.

"What's plaguing our specific area right now is clearly methamphetamine ... but any type of drug can be found in our state," Sheldon said.

A lot of the state's drug issues are thanks to Colorado, Sheldon said.

Because marijuana is legalized in Colorado, law enforcement officers often find people who bring the drug into South Dakota from Colorado. But it's not legal in the Mount Rushmore State, and officers continue to work to remove drugs from the streets.

"I think what Sierra's doing is very well-received and what she's doing is probably not something that a high schooler like her would typically do," Sheldon said. "What she's doing is very good."

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