"Say no to drugs — stay healthy!"
"Hugs, no drugs! Hugs, no drugs!"
"Don't do meth, be yourself!"
"Smoking tobacco isn't healthy!"
As loud as children's messages can be on a late Tuesday afternoon.
As the Red Ribbon Walk wound its way around the sunny streets of the Riverview community, curious neighbors were drawn to their front doors first by the sound of a police siren and then the sight of New Vision Youth children with signs, banners and shouts proclaiming to the neighborhood their opposition to smoking and illegal drugs.
Mea Crews, 15, stood out among the marchers. The ninth-grader at Dobyns-Bennett was dressed as a cigarette.
"Everybody knows what a cigarette looks like," she says, "because maybe their parents or somebody they know does smoke, and I'm trying to help get the message out to not smoke. Sometimes smoking leads to something else."
For 19 years, Kingsport Police Cpl. Jim Clark has sounded the charge of the marchers in the Red Ribbon campaign through the streets in his patrol car to help spread their message. In a 28-year law enforcement career, Clark says he knows all too well the "something else" that Mea is talking about.
"Cigarettes ... alcohol ... illegal drugs," he says. "It seems to always go in that order when kids are involved. It's easy to start off with one habit and quickly start another one. From smoking and alcohol, it just spirals on down to marijuana, then to harder drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Taking a stand with community marches like this one builds an important relationship between the kids, the police department and the neighborhood that reassures the older generation."
This year's Red Ribbon march began with a contest collecting bags full of discarded cigarette butts scattered around the neighborhood.
Sevier Middle School student Deion Butts won that competition with 16 ounces of discarded cigarette litter that he found. Fellow Sevier student Christian Hardin came in second. Myka Williams won the march's essay contest, while Mea Crews won the poster contest.
UNDERSTANDING THE CONSEQUENCES
Later, the children participated in a discussion and seminar with retired cardiovascular technologist Martha Hicks, who explained in detail what smoking, alcohol and illegal drug use can do to the body. It was not a fun discussion for young or old, and some of the younger kids bravely admitted to being afraid of smoking's health consequences.
"Helping the younger kids to understand why taking a stand against tobacco is important," said New Vision Youth Director Johnnie Mae Swagerty, who has organized Red Ribbon marches for all of those 19 years. "Some children have taken part for a long time, but now we've seen children six and seven years old that are anxious to get involved and reinforce 'just saying no' to tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs."
In this year's Red Ribbon event, just over 50 marchers ranged in age from 5 to 18 years old.
Now watch for the Red Ribbon program to extend its message to other neighborhoods in Kingsport in the future.
"Next year, the kids want to expand out of Riverview into the Dale-Maple and Sevier Street area," Swagerty said. "We'll also talk to our neighbors in Borden Park, Ft. Robinson and other communities to take the anti-tobacco, anti-drug message there, too.”
While the theme of this year's march was "Life is your journey ... travel drug-free," there was another, more important feeling among the young marchers.
“WE’RE NOT GIVING UP”
The feeling that their future belongs to them.
"Sometimes, it's frustrating when young people don't seem to care," says Mea, between chants to neighbors waving to the marchers from their front porches. "When you see middle schoolers on social media smoking cigarettes like it doesn't matter to them, is sometimes very discouraging. But we're not giving up. There's just a few of us today, but the more we can get to join us, the more voices out there in the future.
"We all do this for a reason," she said, marching between her friends. "You can die from smoking, drinking and doing bad drugs. This march and that awareness will save our communities."
The Red Ribbon event was sponsored by South Central Kingsport Community Development, New Vision Youth, the Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Kingsport Parks and Recreation, the Sullivan County Health Department, the Sullivan County Anti-Drug Coalition, the Riverview Boys and Girls Club, and Girls, Inc.