Nineteenth-century author and clergyman Henry Giles was quoted as saying, “A song will outlive all sermons in the memory.” Obviously, his faith in the power of song was strong. And though much has changed since Giles’ time, songs still seem to serve as memorable messengers today.
Just ask Madison’s Diane Higgins. As the special projects coordinator for the non-profit Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ), Higgins coordinates “New Jersey Shout Down Drugs,” a statewide high school music competition that invites students to perform original songs with a drug prevention message.
The program’s concept reflects Giles’ conviction that song, more than sermon, is a powerful way to reach your audience. And, when your “audience” is New Jersey youth and your message is “stay drug-free," reaching them can be a matter of life and death.
As the mother of three boys, Higgins understands the challenges facing today’s parents, particularly when it comes to talking to their children about drugs. For Higgins, conversation with your kids about the dangers of substance abuse is essential. She said that even though kids may look like they aren’t listening, research shows that they really are.
PDFNJ helps get this conversation started with a number of school and parent programs. With its mission to “unsell” drugs to the people of New Jersey, PDFNJ uses a variety of media outlets and campaigns to share essential information about drug use/abuse.
They collaborate regularly with prevention organizations around the state and provide all of New Jersey’s local municipal alliances with media materials. With their parent program “Child Break,” participants receive age-specific information related to substance abuse. PDFNJ also brings programs directly to schools to educate third-through-eighth graders.
“New Jersey Shout Down Drugs” (SDD) is a way to keep the conversation going with high school students. The dynamic of this conversation is different, though, than it is with younger children. Instead of a discussion between adult and child, the conversation is peer-to-peer.
With music as the medium, kids impress upon each other the value of living a drug free life. Listening to original songs written by their peers about prevention lets kids know that not “everyone” is doing drugs.
“High school kids have been preached to [about drugs]," Higgins said. “Instead of us preaching to them, we like them to connect with each other.”
Higgins said using music to reach teens is powerful since it is such an important part of their daily lives. She noted a recent study that said kids listen to an average of 2.4 hours of music every day.
The idea for New Jersey SDD grew out of a similar and ongoing high school program “Hudson County Shout Down Drugs." This program is managed by PDFNJ and funded by United Way of Hudson County.
Its success inspired the decision to go state-wide. And, with funding support from the Drug Enforcement Demand Reduction Program (DEDR), they launched the statewide program in 2005. Government and community groups joined the effort. Beginning in 2006, Comcast became the title sponsor of the program.
The “New Jersey Shout Down Drugs” competition begins in the fall. High school students from across the state are invited to submit original music and lyrics to PDFNJ. The songs they write must focus on substance abuse prevention. The entries are then evaluated by an independent panel of judges.
The judges look for originality and strong performances, however, they place a premium on those songs with the most compelling prevention messages. One finalist per county is selected but, because the talent pool is so large, Higgins said, additional “wild card” finalists are added to the group.
It was a proud moment for Madison last year when two Madison High School students Kayleigh Young and Alexa Alvey made it to the finals as the Morris County finalists with their song “Don’t Waste Your Time.”
The judges aren’t the only ones with a say in choosing the winners. PDFNJ invites everyone to vote for their favorites on the PDFNJ website. Online voters can hear every song performed and can read the lyrics too. The judges consider the online votes when making their final selections. And, when the judges’ scores are close, said Higgins, the online voting results can make a big difference.
Participation in the online voting piece of the competition has been impressive. Higgins said when it was launched last year, they had 150,000 votes in only three weeks; all states participated as did 36 countries. So far this year, she said, online voters have come from 103 countries, including Iran.
In May, all finalists sing before the judges and to an enthusiastic crowd at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater at PDFNJ’s annual “Prevention Concert.” The top-three winners are awarded prizes and the chance to perform their songs throughout the state.
As success for the SDD program grows, PDFNJ would like to take the program even further; they would like to launch it nationwide. And, if Higgins has her way, they will. She recently submitted a grant request to the Pepsi Refresh Everything project for money to help with this effort.
She was happy to learn recently that the program was being considered. If accepted, it will be listed with this video on the Pepsi Refresh website as a funding candidate. With enough votes on this site, PDFNJ will get the money it needs to introduce SDD across the country.
“We hope to have our proposal accepted in the Pepsi Refresh Everything online voting so that we can bring this initiative to teens all across America," Higgins said.
Higgins loves what she does and is especially grateful to be part of an organization focused on New Jersey youth and family. She explains her passion for her work with the following Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
And with her tireless efforts to bring the message of drug prevention to New Jersey youth and families, her “prize” is New Jersey’s reward.
For further information on PDFNJ, check out their website. To see performances of this year’s finalists and vote for your favorites, make your way to the Shout Down Drugs website. Voting concludes on May 4. Concert tickets are still available and are free. Find them on the SDD website as well.