Fall weather is made for festivals, and Saturday was no exception at Gus Young Park in Baton Rouge during the Red Ribbon Celebration of Drug-Free Youth.
Rocking to the beat of pop music blaring from a bandstand, more than 150 volunteers joined with BREC, City Year and the O’Brien House to hawk hot dogs, cotton candy and face painting alongside athletes, politicians and community service vendors, all dedicated to persuading youngsters to stay away from drugs.
“We’ve got to send the message that we cannot give up on kids just because they may have become involved in drugs or are wreaking havoc in our community,” Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden said. “We must send a positive message.”
That kid-friendly message included a scary haunted house, erected under the supervision of Bill Blount, assistant director at the East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission.
“We’re like the military,” he said. “We deploy recreational resources throughout the community, wherever they’re needed.”
But the carefree fairgrounds atmosphere was meant for a serious purpose, said Yolanda Mulkey, program director at the O’Brien House. “We want to help children say no to drugs and say yes to staying in school and respecting adults.”
To help achieve that goal, during the last week in October, the nation celebrates Red Ribbon Week to remember U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena, slain in the line of duty while working undercover to investigate Mexican drug cartels.
In honor of Red Ribbon Week, Kristy Landsmann, special projects coordinator at the O’Brien House, helped put together Saturday’s festival with donations from companies such as Whole Foods, Coca-Cola and many others.
Yet every day, she and her co-workers work to provide outreach programs for youngsters from low-income households.
“Our after-school programs at the Housing Authority encourage children to make healthy choices in all aspects of their lives,” she said.
“We don’t forget the parents, either,” she said. “We can’t help children make healthy choices without involving their parents in our Strengthening Families program for effective problem-solving.”
Cory Williams, a 12-year-old who attends the after-school program said, “Drugs are bad for kids. They mess up your body and your brain. This fair keeps their minds off taking drugs.”
Apart from providing drug and alcohol awareness to young people, the 30-member staff at the O’Brien House also runs a four- to six-month adult residential program.
Established in 1971 by Pat O’Brien — the man who started the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in Baton Rouge (not the founder of the French Quarter bar by the same name) — O’Brien House offers 63 subsidized treatment beds for homeless-jobless alcoholics and addicts.
“My father was a friend of Pat O’Brien’s,” said John Pearce, lifelong resident of Baton Rouge. “At one time, Mr. O’Brien was a terrible alcoholic. But in later years, he possessed the demeanor of a man who had gotten his life together. He helped a lot of people.”
Katherine Martin, executive director of the O’Brien House for 17 years, hesitated to accept the job when it first was offered.
It seemed like a daunting task. But her own recovery, and her years of experience in public relations and administration, helped change her mind.
“I recalled the story of a little boy who stumbled upon a beach full of stranded starfish,” she said.
“He started throwing them back into the ocean, one by one. A man walked by and told the little boy he couldn’t save all of the starfish, it wasn’t going to make a difference, so why try? The little boy threw another starfish into the water and said, ‘It made a difference to that one.’”
O’Brien House provides a children’s lending library that is stocked with anti-drug videos. In addition, the staff makes presentations on drug and alcohol awareness to schoolchildren. For information, call O’Brien House at (225) 344-6345.
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