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Local student featured

Date: 2/2/2010

Feb. 3, 2010.

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- Kathy Luong is part of an experiment. One that, so far, seems to be working.

This eighth grader at Forest Park Middle School is a poster child for the state's new peer-to-peer anti-drug and alcohol message.

Photos of her seated at her beloved piano -- the background for a quote about not having time for drugs and alcohol because she's too busy practicing for her next recital -- have graced the halls of her school since last fall. In March, a poster of her friend, Mari Dewberry will join Luong's and that of another Forest Park poster subject, James Villalobos, on the school's walls.

"Sixth graders walk by [me] and say, 'look, there is the poster girl," Luong told Reminder Publications. "My friends have said 'congratulations' and 'you're so lucky!'"

That kind of response is just what Maxine Marne, an account manager with the social marketing ad agency Geovision, said her company was hoping the anti-drug posters would draw.

Geovision was selected to coordinate and oversee this three-year experimental anti-drug campaign by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's Bureau of Substance Abuse Services. Geovision is now in its second year of overseeing the project, which specifically targets tweens and early teens.

"It's a pilot program in five middle schools across the state," Marne said. "There is [a program] in Worcester, one in Andover, one in Barnstable and one in Brookline." She added that the schools were selected by the Division of Education based on a certain criteria of employment and socioeconomic demographics. The program at Forest Park Middle School is the only one in the western part of the state.

What makes the program unique, she said, is that the posters "feature real kids from the school. All of the messages are from kids for kids."

"Seeing real kids they know makes them want to pay more attention to the poster," Marne continued, adding that the messages have been "extremely well received" by the students and faculty in the test schools.

Luong, who was one of 200 seventh and eighth graders who took part in the program's "casting call" at her school last spring, said she decided to enter the contest because with her focus on academics and music she felt she "could be a good role model for other kids."

The three things she listed as important on her application were friends, family and education. "Education because my parents always say how important [it] is ... friends because I see them at school every day, and they have my back, too [and] family because they always are my support," she said.

Her answers got her into the school's pool of top 10 candidates and an on-camera interview with Marne. "We asked questions about [their] personal interests and hobbies and why they wanted to stay away from drugs, and why they wanted to be picked to be featured in the campaign," Marne said.

Luong said she found out that she had been selected when her name was announced over the school intercom. Her photo was taken at the school last spring. She first saw the finished product when she came back to school last August.

"They don't tell you [when the poster will go up], it's more of a surprise," Luong said. "When I walked in I saw my poster."

Marne said Luong's poster, and those of her friends, are on display in schools across the state. "It seems the kids really like the messages," she said, adding that Geovision doesn't get involved with what the students say on their poster, other than to encourage subjects to emphasize their involvement with hobbies. "From what we know [the posters] have been very well received by the kids and the schools."

Marne added that she hopes the program, which ends its three-year pilot run in June, will be extended and expanded to include more schools.

"We hope that it will get picked up statewide, eventually," she said.