ST. ALBANS — Quitting smoking hits close to home for those participating in St. Albans Town Educational Center’s VKAT (Vermont Kids Against Tobacco) program.
“I got my mom to quit (two years ago),” said SATEC seventh grader Kiley Bates. “When I joined VKAT, she quit.”
Another VKAT member and seventh grader Gavin Hurlbut said all his family members – except him – currently smoke.
“I kind of want to be the one to make them know what smoking does to you,” he said.
Smoking is particularly personal for Sam Ovitt, a SATEC paraeducator and the adult leader of VKAT. Ovitt, who followed her parents’ lead and began smoking at age 16 has now quit with the help of her VKAT students.
“I needed someone to hold me accountable for my smoking,” Ovitt said Wednesday. Her VKAT students have done that for her in a number of ways since September, when Ovitt started working at SATEC and got serious about kicking her habit.
“I did not want to disappoint them, bottom line,” she said. “These guys support each other and say, ‘That’s disgusting.’”
Ovitt shared her story as part of yesterday’s Kick Butts Day, a VKAT advocacy day at SATEC to educate students (and adults) about the dangers of using tobacco. In addition to Ovitt’s presentation in the classroom, the VKAT students gave presentations in the school lobby to fellow students, asked peers to sign no-smoking pledges and sold t-shirts to raise funds for a quit group, all under the guidance of student assistance counselor Amie Koontz.
“All these kids are really motivated,” said Koontz. “These guys don’t point fingers, [but] try to offer encouragement which is what it’s all about.”
SATEC’s VKAT students – five seventh graders and one fifth grader – spent about a month putting together their presentation for Kick Butts Day. When math teacher Kevin Healy’s enrichment group visited yesterday afternoon, VKAT members began by showing the fifth graders both tobacco products and candy and mint products.
“It shows you how much they look alike,” said VKAT member and fifth grader Ethan Bruley. Beef jerky and chewing tobacco came in similar packaging, and the candy and true cigarettes were almost indistinguishable.
VKAT also showed an old Flintstones cartoon segment that showed Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble puffing on Winston cigarettes.
“This was actually in a show – an episode back then,” said Hurtbut. “It’s a cartoon, kids like it, it’s going to lure kids in thinking it’s cool.”
Smoking, though, isn’t cool, said VKAT, but a killer. During the slideshow the students put together, they listed the unfortunate but very real health consequences of smoking tobacco: mouth, voice box, nose, liver, stomach, kidney, bladder, cervix and bowel cancers, lung diseases (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – COPD), heart disease, stomach ulcers, eye diseases, reproduction complications, and others.
Students had the chance to experience, ever so briefly, what COPD might feel like for smokers. Using a small straw usually meant for stirring coffee, students who chose to participate put the straws in their mouths, plugged their noses and tried breathing through just the straw for a minute.
“For us, it will last one minute,” said Koontz.
A number of students couldn’t last the 60 seconds.
“I don’t like it – it’s not good,” said participant Robert Kelly, a Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans senior who was at the presentation with the SATEC student he mentors.
“If you have COPD,” said Koontz, “you don’t get to take the straw out of your mouth.”
At the end of the presentation, students were asked to sign a pledge not to smoke.
“This is a promise not to smoke or use other tobacco products,” said VKAT member and seventh grader Grace Adamczak. The six students at the presentation signed along with the three BFA senior mentors, joining the 100 or so students who did so throughout the day.
In addition, students were offered the chance to buy “Kick Butts Day” t-shirts for $15, which read, “Listen up big tobacco: I won’t be your ‘replacement smoker’!” The money raised will go to support local quit groups with evening and weekend meeting times, said Koontz.
Bringing message home
While educating people about the dangers of smoking can have some effect, seeing and feeling the effects of tobacco use – even through simulation activities with straws – make the issue much more real and make smoking much less attractive.
“After what I’ve seen in this class,” said Bruley, “It’s really gross what [smoking] does to your body.” He added that his grandfather died to a smoking-related disease.
For Ovitt, it was caring for her mother, Lillian, over two years before she died of COPD. Trying to breath through a straw and realizing that was a reality for her mother, said Ovitt, was a wake-up call.
“[It] was a kicker in the gut for me,” Ovitt said. “I struggled doing it – I thought, ‘Oh my God, was that what it felt like for my mom to breath?’”
She added, “I don’t want to go through that, I don’t want my kids to go through that.”
Ovitt originally tried to quit smoking when she began working at SATEC at the beginning of the school year.
“I started out good,” she said. But then, three weeks in, she had a moment of weakness.
“I went out on the porch and had a cigarette,” said Ovitt. She told Koontz about it, who suggested Ovitt get involved in VKAT.
Immediately, Ovitt felt the support and encouragement she needed to quit smoking.
“I’d walk in the door and the first thing I heard, was, ‘Did you smoke Ms. Ovitt?’”
She’s only had to answer “yes” once to that question – sometime in November – but has been able to proudly say “no” every other day. In addition to check in with her, Ovitt said VKAT students put notes of encouragement in places where she would usually keep her cigarettes, and they’ve also set up an app on her iPad to remind her to not smoke.
“They were really supportive and understanding,” said Ovitt. More than anything else, Ovitt said, she doesn’t want to disappoint those students and doesn’t want to continue smoking, which has created a sense of closure for her since her mother passed away.
“I watched my mom take off the oxygen and say, ‘C’mon, smoke a cigarette with me,’” said Ovitt. “I didn’t want to disappoint her. [But] I look back now and I know… it would be different.”
She added, “I have no desire now. And I’m so glad.”