STRIVE offers head start on leadership

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PITTSFIELD — "This is where Katie was sitting," Rebecca White said as she presented pictures of a wrecked two-door Honda Civic. "The seat where I told her to sit."

She described what it was like living with the knowledge that her mother and best friend Katie had died in that 1999 crash caused by a drunk driver.

White, who survived her injuries, said she became depressed after the crash, using marijuana and losing interest in school.

That was, she said, until she saw a girl with severe burn injuries talk on a TV show about how she had forgiven the drunk driver who caused her injuries.

"That moment made me realize the power of forgiveness," she said.

White recounted her story on Tuesday to a group of students at the annual STRIVE (Students Teaching Respect Integrity Values and Equality) Youth Leadership Conference, hosted by the Berkshire District Attorney's Office's Youth Advisory Board at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Pittsfield.

White told the group of students that freeing your heart from hatred — forgiveness — is one of five simple guidelines to living a happier life. Her presentation on these guidelines was one of several given at the conference, which aimed to educate the youth advisory board's younger peers on social issues impacting teenagers.

About 176 eighth-grade students selected by their schools participated in conjunction with youth advisory board members.

The conference arose out of a desire for younger students to learn about social issues that can come up in high school, said Beth Como, a member of the support staff for the community outreach and education division of the DA's office. STRIVE is a project of the office's Youth Advisory Board, a group of high school juniors and seniors that advise the district attorney's office on educational initiatives. The first conference was hosted by the 2010-11 board.

Every year, Youth Advisory Board members decide the topics and presenters to include, Como said.

Electronic communication, drinking and drugs are consistently on the agenda, she said.

"The students that we selected as leaders or potential leaders ... can carry back positive messages about moving forward into high school," said Kim Blair, a youth education and prevention specialist for the DA's office's community outreach and education department. "If they're seen as leaders, and they're making good choices, hopefully [they're] inspiring good choices."

Students learned about some bad choices common to online behavior — social media 'land mines' — from Robert Hackenson, an educator, illusionist and hypnotist.

When people start over-utilizing social media, their happiness will peak and then fall, he said.

"It's just an illusion," he said. "How many likes? How many friends? None of that matters."

Hackenson presented students with his own three key considerations before posting online: whether or not the action follows the "Golden Rule 2.0" — posting about others the way you want to be posted about, if you would want this post on a billboard, and if you would be OK with it existing online forever.

He cautioned students about the dangers online activity presents to them — including potential exploitation and bullying — and the harm their online activity can cause others.

Several students admitted they had posted something that harmed someone else in the past.

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"The big thing is that you don't see the hurt," Hackenson said. "Just because you don't touch someone, [it] doesn't mean they don't feel it."

As leaders in their schools, Hackenson told the students they had the power to promote positive social media use.

"It comes down to a single word," he said. "Empathy."

Students also learned about empathy and appreciation for diversity through a presentation on exploring identities and supporting LGBTQIA people, given by Hillary Montague-Asp, a graduate student at UMass Amherst and board member of the Massachusetts chapter of GLSEN, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring safe schools for LGBTQ students.

Substance abuse — a consistent topic of the conference in past years — bracketed the day on Tuesday. The keynote speaker, Berkshire County native Noah Morgenstein, presented his own journey to recovery in the morning. At the end of the day, the Watertown-based Improbable Players performed "End of the Line," an educational theater presentation consisting of a series of scenes about the experiences of addicts.

The three actors — all former drug addicts — presented varying stories of addiction, from a woman who became addicted to pills first given to her at the age of 8 by her mother, to a man who so craved the feeling provided by the medication he was given at the hospital that he wound up desperate for more.

The actors described their own stories and answered questions from students immediately after the show. They talked about issues with depression, anxiety, suicide and trauma that they self-medicated away with drugs. That self-medication turned into serious addiction for all of them.

"I was latching onto it in a way that my friends just didn't," said Shahjehan Kahn, a former alcohol and drug addict.

Erin Halsey described not realizing she had a problem until long after her first drink at the age of 11.

"I didn't know I had this thing called addiction," she said. "If this works for me [I thought], why not do it?"

Elizabeth Addison's father was an addict. She swore that she wouldn't become one herself.

One student asked how to help someone who struggles with addiction. The actors emphasized the need to take care of yourself while dealing with a loved one's addiction problem. Kahn recommended voicing concerns about that person's behavior on the day after they use, when they're not feeling the high of the drug.

Another student asked when drug use becomes addiction.

"For me, the fact that ... as soon as I felt better physically, I wanted more [alcohol]. For me, that's a sign of an addict," Halsey said, referring to the episodes of drinking as an 11-year-old that left her sick for weeks. "I'd still go looking for more."

Kahn closed the presentation by asking the audience if they knew someone they thought had a problem with alcohol or drugs. About half the room raised their hands.

Kahn's own struggles became so severe that he attempted suicide multiple times.

"What a dark place, to not want to be alive," he said. "There's so much in the world to do. I had such a small idea of who I was."

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.


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