A painful memory cloaked in cigarette smoke fires Owen High School junior Savannah Henderson’s determination to help extinguish tobacco use. “My grandfather started using at a very young age, and just years later, he suffered a major stroke related to his smoking,” she reveals.
Three other girls sitting with her nod knowingly: They’ve all witnessed firsthand the ravages of tobacco. Whether it was seeing a family friend die of esophageal cancer before his children were grown or having parents who are heavy users, those experiences ignited the passion that drives these students to work for Question Why.
Funded by a state grant, the teen-powered tobacco-prevention project is a program of Youth Empowered Solutions, a statewide nonprofit. YES! helps high-school students spark change in their own communities — in this case by hiring and training them to educate their peers about tobacco use. “I believe a lot in preventive measures and preventive health,” says regional program coordinator Mark Strazzer. With a background in nutrition, exercise and diabetes prevention, Strazzer makes sure his charges are well armed with facts and figures that can help them change minds.
Earlier this year, five Buncombe County Question Why staffers traveled to Raleigh, where they led more than 200 students from across the state during TRU Youth Advocacy Day. These committed young people assembled smoking-cessation kits for soldiers, helped pick up cigarette butts and, guided by the Question Why staffers, learned how to be advocates in their own communities.
That’s something the local contingent understands very well. In early January, two of them appeared before Asheville’s Recreation Advisory Board, urging it to eliminate all tobacco-company sponsorships from this year’s Bele Chere festival. And about a month ago, Henderson spoke to the Buncombe County Board of Health about the youth-powered program.
“At first, we’re at a disadvantage,” she explains, “because we’re youth and there’s that whole idea that says we can’t learn from people who are younger. As long as we get the chance to speak, I think we do receive respect.”
Asheville High sophomore Emma Harper concurs. “I think when people first hear about us, they’re a little doubtful,” she concedes, adding, “One voice can change an entire nation: I don’t think it matters how old it is.”
And when these students speak with their peers about the dangers of tobacco use, their age may make them more effective persuaders. “Youth take their cues from adults all day in every aspect of their life,” says North Buncombe High junior Tiffany Jones. “For youth to have that opportunity to influence other youth, I think it’s absolutely fabulous.”
But these teens have a loftier goal than simple influence: helping foster a tobacco-free generation.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, tobacco use remains the most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the United States. Smoking affects every organ in the human body and increases the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and stroke. “I hate to think of somebody starting to smoke just because they didn’t know all the effects it could have,” Harper explains.
Even putting all that aside, however, notes Jones, “I’ve seen how it affects people not even in very large ways like cancer or death, but in small ways, like how they manage stress.”
Henderson, meanwhile, says her grandfather’s story inspires her to continue working for a smoke-free community, trusting her training, facts and passion even if it’s not always the most popular idea.
“I definitely think peers look to each other for what to do next,” she says. “If there are any steps I can take toward making a tobacco-free state or a tobacco-free community, I’m going to do whatever it takes.”
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