PITTSFIELD -- John Morello saw at a young age what drinking and drugs could do to people.
A brother died in an alcohol-related motorcycle accident. Another brother died from heroin.
On Thursday, with the backdrop of a large sign that read "Leaders sailing in the right direction," the actor and graphic artist warned an assembly of eighth-graders from around the county about those dangers at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Pittsfield, as part of the STRIVE (Students Teaching Respect Integrity Values Equality) Youth Leadership Conference.
The event, which was attended by more than 100 eighth-graders from 19 schools, was organized by the Berkshire District Attorney's Office Youth Advisory Board representing high schools around the county.
"I'm not going to give you the seven steps to success because I don't know them," Morello told the group. "Usually, people who say they do are trying to sell me something."
Morello did give students a glimpse into high school issues such as bullying and drug and alcohol abuse by acting out different characters. Among them was a group of bullies whom he compared to Nazis and a student who stands up to them.
Speaking about the dangers of peer pressure, Morello said that "Sometimes all you need is just one friend." He also warned that addiction "can happen to anyone."
Kim Boland, another speaker, looked to raise the spirits of students and inspire confidence among them in their ability to inspire change with a positive message.
Nicole Stjean, an eighth-grader at Reid Middle School in Pittsfield, said she found the forum for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender allyship helpful.
Alexis Rider, an eighth-grader at Gabriel Abbot Memorial School in Florida, said she liked the conference because she got to "meet new friends."
"I hope they are more supportive of kids around them" as a result of the conference, said Nicole Gingras, a senior at Wahconah Regional High School and member of the youth advisory board.
Ian Brink, a junior at Mount Greylock High School, said he was hopeful the students took away "some tips on how to avoid the negative situations and get more involved in the positive situations and activities."
Rachele Rosiello, a senior at Pittsfield High School, said students should go into high school "with an open mind. They need to know the difference between good peer pressure and bad peer pressure and when to say ‘no.' "
"They need to know that their decisions impact more than just themselves," Gingras said.
Carol Mulcahy, director of community outreach and education for Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless, said the students chose this year to target a message to eighth-graders in order to prepare them for high school. The topics of Thursday's forum included discussions on leadership, peer pressure, socialization, drugs, stress, confidence, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
The students who attended were chosen for their leadership qualities and ability to take the message back to their fellow students, Mulcahy said.
"I think the kids took away a message of leadership" and "accepting each other for their uniqueness," she said.
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