Photo Gallery | STRIVE Youth Leadership Conference

Video | Malcolm Astley addresses Berkshire students at the 5th annual STRIVE conference about preventing violence

PITTSFIELD — Removing the cloak of stigma to promote a culture of openness, sharing and empathy is the best way for children, parents, community leaders and law enforcement to prevent drug use, addiction, violence and prejudice among the young.

That message came again and again over the course of a full-day Youth Leadership Conference attended by hundreds of Berkshire middle school students and sponsored by the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office at Crowne Plaza on Thursday.


Reflecting on years of holding the annual conference, District Attorney David Capeless said his office has learned alongside the kids.

The Students Teaching Respect, Integrity, Values and Equality Youth Leadership Conference, he said, developed into its present form thanks to much input from young people.

"We keep realizing we shouldn't be afraid, thinking, 'Oh gee, these kids are too young to talk about X or Y,' " Capeless said. "They really aren't. They're never too young. We've learned from kids telling us year after year that these are the kinds of things they need and want to talk about."

He added, "The most important thing is not just that they listen, but that they talk themselves and understand that talking about these issues, discussing with other people and sharing with other people is the best approach."

Thursday's program featured a play on addiction, talks by former drug addicts and alcoholics and programs and exercises on a variety of topics, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual identities; cyberbullying, violence prevention and setting goals.

Julia Reddy, of the Improbable Players performance group, got almost everyone in a room filled with hundreds to raise their hands by asking whether someone they loved had struggled with addiction. She then echoed Capeless' message.

"If you know someone that has a problem, talk about it like you would anything else in your life," Reddy said. "People don't want to say it out loud, and that's one of the biggest barriers to getting help."

Reddy's play often confronted how issues like social anxiety and the difficulties of growing up set many people on a course toward addiction before they know enough to make a conscious decision.

"[Drugs and alcohol] were a shortcut to social intimacy, an easy way to be close to people without having to be myself," Reddy said.

At the end of the day in a sharing session, students poured out what they had learned and appreciated about the conference.

One student said both her parents were addicts and she identified as bisexual.

"I relate to every single thing that we saw here today," she said.

Douglas LaDouceur, 13, of Hoosac Valley Middle and High School, said the conference underscored to him his ability to control his own destiny, and hoped his peers would have opportunities to retain a similar message.

"It's your life; you decide what happens to you and how you live it," LaDouceur said. "This taught me a lot. I think it would be really cool if we could have a program like this go out to each of our schools for a day, so it's not just us, it's everyone."

Other students said they hoped to be more empathetic as a result of what they'd learned and appreciated the authenticity of hearing from recovered alcoholics and addicts and that the conference proved "not a lecture."

Robert Hackenson uses a demonstration to discuss the safe use of communication technology and social media Thursday at the fifth annual STRIVE (Students
Robert Hackenson uses a demonstration to discuss the safe use of communication technology and social media Thursday at the fifth annual STRIVE (Students Teaching Respect, Integrity, Values and Equality) Youth Leadership Conference at the Crowne Plaza in Pittsfield. (Ben Garver — The Berkshire Eagle |

Caroline Mulcahy, director of community outreach and education at the District Attorney's Office, said she took away a message of "resiliency, hope, forgiveness and connectivity."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.