December 20, 2014
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High school students wax poetic about being ‘Above the Influence’
Jessica A. Botelho
JUST SAY NO: Students at Pilgrim and Warwick Veterans Memorial High School recently took part in the “Above the Influence” poetry competition. Vets winners include (from left) seniors Cara Nason, 17, Kaianna Hansen, 17, and Alex Abjornson, 17. Not pictured are Pilgrim champions freshman Casey Stillson, 14, junior Pablo Youngs, 16, and senior Maria Anthony, 17.

Pilgrim and Vets students recently participated in the “Above the Influence” poetry competition, which promotes being drug- and alcohol-free.

While student members of the anti-substance and non-bullying group Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) selected the winners at Pilgrim, adult affiliates of the Warwick Substance Abuse Task Force chose the winners at Vets, which included seniors Alex Abjornson, 17, Cara Nason, 17, and Kaianna Hansen, 17.

Alex, who admitted he once dabbled with drugs, said he is proud he changed his ways.

“I’ve been through that already and it’s not the way to go,” he said.

His poem, “The Past,” won first place, a $50 gift certificate to Warwick Mall. He wrote, “I was different but that side of me is over. Like Red Rover, the sober side called me over.”

Alex said when he was using he felt his childhood slipping away. When he quit, he regained his life and was able to improve his grades.

“I proved that not doing drugs is good,” he said. “You’re the only person that can make yourself stop. It’s your life and you’re going to control it.”

Cara, who won second place and took home a $35 gift certificate for her poem “The Game,” said she likes being sober because the idea of being intoxicated or high is “scary.” She has heard stories that people get “so messed up” they black out.

“They did things they never would have thought of doing,” she said. “I can’t imagine that.”

She wrote, “A chance to look cool, a chance to fit in. Never mind the loss of self-control. Never mind that it hurts those who care.”

Cara said she is more interested in reading and playing guitar, piano or flute than drinking or doing drugs. Third place winner Kaianna agreed and said she’d rather play sports like field hockey and soccer.

“My friends and I just put together a soccer team for the Rhode Island Indoor Soccer Center,” said Kaianna, who was awarded a $25 gift certificate. “I have friends that drink and do drugs, but if they are really your friends they don’t pressure you. I say no and it’s not a problem. I tell them, ‘It’s not a good idea.’”

Her poem, “Last Night,” depicts a scene at a party at which teenagers get drunk and create chaos. It ends, “But the night’s not done. At least not until the cops come, 911.”

Pam Grasso, Vets student assistance counselor, said the judges reviewed 30 submissions before selecting winners. Judges included Patricia St. Amant, Warwick Director of Family Support Services, Marge Johnson, Winman Student Assistance Counselor, Krystal Alves Amoroso, Gorton Student Assistance Counselor, and Colleen Heffernan of MetLife.

St. Amant said of Alex’s poem, “There was an identification of where they were at – a very personal story.”

Johnson said, “It shows progression [and] gave the perspective of, ‘This is where I was and this is where I’m going.’”

In regards to Kaianna’s poem, St. Amant said, “It shows determination.”

Heffernan agreed and said, “It shows maturity and growth.”

They also praised Cara’s poem. Alves Amoroso said, “It lists a lot of reasons to stay healthy and how to make good choices. That’s a great poem for parents.”

Grasso said, “It’s realistic. They are such three diverse kids and their poems are awesome.”

The Pilgrim poetry competition was held in honor of Katie DeCubellis, a young woman killed by a drunk driver in 1999. Victors included Casey Stillson, 14, a freshman, awarded first place, Pablo Youngs, 16, a junior, who came in second, and senior Maria Anthony, 17, third place winner.

“I don’t need to get high to have a good time,” said Pablo. “And to be honest, I think alcohol tastes gross.”

In his poem, “Free, Drug Free,” Pablo discussed the damage drugs and alcohol can cause, as well as the importance of saying no. He noted that he often tells people who offer him any type of substance that he believes using is a poor choice.

He wrote, “‘Sorry, dude. I’d prefer to not have black lungs.’ I know where my life is. I remember who I truly am. I remember where I came from. I remember why I’m really here. I know where my life will be…drug free.”

As a prize for his poem, Pablo was awarded movie passes. Casey won a $50 Visa card, while Anthony received a $10 iTunes gift card.

“You can’t further your life and have a good career if you’re doing drugs and alcohol,” said Anthony. Part of her untitled poem read, “When you drink liquor, a life could end quicker. Choosing to drink and drive could keep someone from being alive. Making smart choices will make you go far so think before you open that door of your car.”

Casey, who runs cross-country track for Pilgrim and plans to tryout for indoor track, agreed. She said she would never risk her life, anyone else’s or being kicked off the team by using substances.

“If you’re on a sports team and you get caught at a party with drugs and alcohol, you’re off the team automatically,” Casey said. “High School is the starting point of your life and if you do drugs you’re not going to have a future.”

In her poem, “Think First,” Casey wrote, “You say doing drugs is cool? Well, sorry buddy. I want to stay in school. You say if I don’t I will be a loser. Well I’d rather be that than a drug user.”

The winners were chosen by the SADD group at Pilgrim, which consists of 25 members. They meet twice a week under the guidance of student assistance councilor Diane Ferrara, who is also the SADD advisor.

Sophomore Megan Driscoll, 15, said she had no idea what SADD was until her friends told her about it.

“I came to one of the meetings and realized what was going on and thought it was a really good idea,” Megan said.

Three more sophomores, Christian Gamez, 14, Destiny Schaefer, 14, and Amber Casala, 15, agreed. They said they joined to help share the significance of staying away from substances with their peers.

“My friends brought me to a meeting and I learned all about the positive message,” Christian said.

Destiny said, “I want people to know that not all high schoolers use drugs. There are kids that want to do good things.”

Amber said, “It’s fun to be a part of. It’s a good example to set for people.”

Pablo said another way to set a good example is to be frank about why he doesn’t use. He frequently vocalizes his thoughts when he is offered drugs or alcohol.

“I don’t just say no, I let them know how I feel,” he said. “I say, ‘How could you possibly do that?’”

Megan takes the same approach.

“I tell them I don’t want to go down that path,” she said. “I don’t get why people drink at concerts. Why would you pay all that money and drink to not even remember seeing your favorite band? What if something happened and you want to know about it?”

Amber agreed. She said she wants to remember the fun times she has with friends.

“Life is too short,” she said.

Casey thinks it’s unfortunate that substances can change people for the worst. She has witnessed the lives of former friends go downhill.

“I don’t know them anymore,” she said.

Pablo has also lost friends due to drugs. As a member of the drama club, he witnessed someone’s life take a negative turn.

“I had a friend who did one play and she was great,” said Pablo. “Then, she started to get into drugs and quit drama. She could have gone far with her talent but decided not to in order to do drugs.”

In addition to drugs and alcohol, the students see problems with abusing cigarettes, as well. In fact, they think it’s foul.

“If you think about it, you’re taking smoke and putting it into your pink lungs and making them completely black,” Pablo said. “Smoking cigarettes is not only disgusting, it’s expensive. You see people going through poverty and yet they smoke three packs a day. You’re downloading cancer every time you smoke. People say it’s a stress reliever but you could die from it.”

Megan agreed.

“I don’t see what cigarettes do for people,” she said. “They smell bad. If I want to relieve stress, I listen to music, watch T.V. or take a nap.”

Destiny said she doesn’t understand the point of smoking either. While older generations didn’t know smoking is harmful, she feels today’s youth should know better.

“We have all the information about what it can cause, so why would you do that?” she said.

Grasso and Ferrara are happy the students avoid substances. In fact, they said most high school students do not use drugs or alcohol.

“We did a survey a couple years ago, which indicated that most kids aren’t using,” said Grasso. “Research has shown that if you believe you are expected to use you’re more likely to. It’s called Social Norms Marketing. We’re helping the students understand the facts. You’re not always sure the message is getting through to the kids, and with this I can see that they understand that drug use is dangerous.”

Ferrara agreed. She is proud of them all.

“Things like this encourage them to be leaders by taking a stand.”


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