Thirteen Angelina County students along with six Chireno High School Student Council members recently attended the SayWhat! Tobacco-Free Conference at LaToretta Resort at Lake Conroe to learn more about tobacco prevention and youth leadership.  

Say What! stands for Students, Adults and Youth Working Hard Against Tobacco and is a state-wide movement with the goal of connecting everyone working towards reducing tobacco use throughout Texas.

Highlighted by a theme of “#MakeTobaccoHistory” the conference was held July 23-26 with over 300 students from across Texas engaged in youth-led, high-energy trainings. The focus of the conference was to increase students’ knowledge about the dangers of tobacco and e-cigarettes and to make them better leaders back home.

Seventeen Teen Ambassadors (TAs) from across the state helped lead the conference, including sophomore Rozalinn Runnels from Zavalla. She represented her peers and helped in the planning along with 16 other TAs from across Texas. The TAs were chosen thorough a strict vetting process and are known as some of the top leaders in tobacco prevention in Texas.

Students that attended the conference previously participated in the advanced track while first-time attendees took the beginner track. “It was different than last year and it wasn’t all about tobacco products,” said Kellen Kruk, a junior at Pineywoods Community Academy who attended his third Say What! Conference. “It was more about the way we can spread the word and around the things we do each day.” Kruk is currently in the midst of applying for one of the prestigious Teen Ambassador spots, hoping to join Runnels. Chireno sophomore Carolyn Cuarenta and junior David Gilcrease hope to be in that prestigious group this upcoming school year as both have applied for a coveted TA spot.

"I liked all the amazing speakers that came to the conference,” said senior Cameron Watson. “They were interesting, and we learned so much."  Watson was attending her third consecutive conference and says she has a big goal for Chireno. "I want to help make the park in my community a smoke free place for children to play."

At the conference, students were also educated by Dr. Victor DeNoble, a former research scientist at Phillip Morris who discovered in the 1980s that nicotine contains addictive properties similar to other drugs. In 1994 DeNoble was the first whistle-blower to testify before Congress against the tobacco industry and had a movie, Addiction Incorporated, made about him. Panels of medical experts and former smokers also took the stage to motivate students in their efforts to activate change in their schools and communities.

Through fun-filled, interactive workshops, students worked in teams to create tobacco-prevention projects for Red Ribbon Week, the Great American Smokeout, and Texas Tobacco-free Kids Day. “I liked how they made learning about tobacco fun and educational at the same time,” said Kemariya Thomas, an eighth grader at Diboll Junior High. “I learned ways to help inform the community about smoking and tobacco use and how to help people stop using tobacco.”

Angelina County groups represented included Zavalla ISD, Pineywoods Community Academy, Hudson ISD, and Diboll ISD. Other Chireno high schoolers besides Cuarenta, Watson and Gilcrease that attended were junior Jodi Blount, and sophomores Hannah Zager and Noemi Ceja.

Any school group in Angelina County or Nacogdoches County is eligible to start a SayWhat! group and attend the SayWhat! Conference next year. Mini-kits and materials are available from SayWhat! to assist. For more details contact The Coalition at 936-634-9308

Top Picture Above : (Kneeling, L to R) Brianna Moreno, Zavalla ISD; Kemariya Thomas, Diboll ISD; Rozalinn Runnels, Zavalla ISD; Brianna Castro, Diboll ISD; Jazmine Jamison, Hudson ISD; Kayla Warner, Hudson ISD; Madalyn Howard, Lufkin ISD
(Standing, L to R) Hayden Reed, Pineywoods Community Academy; Carter Wood, Pineywoods Community Academy; Kellen Kruk, Pineywoods Community Academy; Mason Wood, Pineywoods Community Academy; Garrett Greene, Hudson ISD; Faith Thompson, Pineywoods Community Academy

Lower Picture: (L to R) David Gilcrease, Carolyn Cuarenta, Jodi Blount, Noemi Ceja, Hannah Zager, and Cameron Watson.