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IGNITE Youth Designs New Billboard to Increase Awareness

By Kathy Brown.

Billboard on Route 154

You may have seen the new billboard on Route 154 if you drive south from exit 10: “When the glass shatters your buzz will not matter” along with a picture of a broken windshield.

The idea for the billboard was hatched by members of Ignite, a youth coalition of Haddam Killingworth Youth & Family Services. “The idea of creating a billboard was brainstormed by our group at one of our meetings when we were asking ourselves how we can get a message out in a big way,” explained Hannah Laird-Hoover. “I believe the slogan itself was created by another leadership member, John Bosco, after we divided in teams for a slogan and billboard competition. We pulled elements from both teams’ designs and eventually came up with our billboard to raise awareness about driving intoxicated or under the influence. We hope any adult and/or teen passing this message will think twice about driving under any influence and will consider the great consequences for something as harmless seeming as a ‘buzz.'”

“The idea was 100% youth driven,” explained Laurie Ruderfer, Executive Director, HKYFS. “All I had to do was take those ideas and work with Lamar Company and the billboard grew from that.”

The six leaders of Ignite this year are Libby Antonelli, John Bosco, Timothy Carter, Lizzy Celano, Hannah Laird-Hoover, and Mia Rubino, who are all seniors. There are 43 youth signed up for Ignite, though about 25 attend meetings.

The billboard isn’t the only project the group has undertaken. Since July 2020, they spearheaded the Back to School Supply Drive Bake Sale, created a club to focus on mental health awareness called MIND, participated in the Farmers Market to spread the word about suicide awareness and prevention, attended QPR training (17 youth, along with 6 adults attended), and hosted a presentation by a former substance user and the Haddam Ambulance.

“In 2015, HKYFS was awarded a grant opportunity through the CT State of CT Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS),” explained Laurie. “The CT Strategic Prevention Coalitions grant (CSC) gave us the opportunity to bring groups of community leaders, students and parents, law enforcement and key stakeholders from every sector in the community to collaboratively address issues affecting young people in our communities. At that time there was concern about the number of underage youths known to be using alcohol (and other substances) as well as concerns about mental health issues affecting youth and adult community members.  Six years later those issues continue to be at the forefront of the coalitions’ work.”

“In addition to paying for a full time prevention coordinator, the grants required broad community involvement, identification and focus on the issues surrounding youth access to and use of alcohol and other drugs, the underlying factors that explained why problems exist and ways of thinking strategically about how to  address the issue,” said Laurie. “Under the HKYFS umbrella, they have been at the forefront of bringing youth and adults together to promote healthy community. Ignite, created by Cristal DiPietro [in 2016] and significantly expanded by former Prevention Coordinator for HKYFS, Lindsey Lehet, has been blazing trails ever since.  Our new coordinator, Francesca (Franny) LaFountain, is looking forward to working with Ignite and picking up where Lindsey left off.”

“Igniting passion and change for a better community was the slogan when we started,” said Cristal. “A group of kids [met] with Congressman Courtney to talk about the things that affected them most. After that meeting I knew we had a group of kids strong enough to create a youth coalition.”

Cristal believed that young people should be given “the voice and opportunity to create change through prevention and leadership,” so not only did they create the youth coalition Ignite, but also invited two of those teens to sit on the adult coalition. “These kids felt empowered and over the course of the time I was there, they truly forged through as a group of young people who shared their opinions and concerns regarding prevention surrounding drugs and alcohol. Those kids went on to do amazing things.”

Ignite members hard at work

Laurie explained that meetings for this incredible group are held twice a month, on Thursday evenings. Anyone high school age can join. The focus of the group has been addressing issues that include youth alcohol abuse, access to alcohol and other substances, mental health awareness and challenges, vaping and its risks, the development of positive relationships for youth. The adult coalition (Healthy Communities-Healthy Kids) co-chaired by Michele Ouellette and Rich Mulhall, will be working closely with Ignite this year.

“I was eager to join,” said Elizabeth Celano. “With the suffering in surrounding communities regarding mental health, we’ve focused much of our fundraising towards helping mental health awareness. We hope to fundraise through drive-in movies, bake sales, and other socially distant sales. With this money we plan to get special speakers at meetings and send members to leadership conferences.”

“[I] joined Ignite the summer before my freshman year and have attended almost every meeting since,” said Hannah. “I initially joined because my mom was on the adult coalition and recommended it. However, after my first few meetings, I quickly developed a passion for advocacy, awareness, and prevention.”

Ignite members share their ideas and opinions about what is important to them and their focus for 2020/2021:

  • youth access to and use of alcohol and other drugs
  • drugged driving
  • mental health issues facing young people
  • awareness of and suicide prevention
“Through Ignite I personally feel we are not only trying to raise awareness for the very prevalent drug and alcohol use within our community, but to establish an open and safe environment where youth feel accepted and that their voices are valued and heard,” explained Hannah.
With this billboard “we hope to spread awareness about the issue as well as remind people in the moment to make the right choice,” said Elizabeth. “It could help people, specifically adults, understand how the youth in their community feel.”
“Their passion is extraordinary,” said Laurie. “Of all the youth coalitions across the State, ours is one of the most active.”

Photos provided by HKYFS.

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