Bryan High School’s Vikings Kicking Out Tobacco student club is officially nationally recognized after receiving the Group Youth Advocate of the Year award from Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Four members of the club and sponsor Patricia Bailey-Jones traveled to Washington, D.C., on May 21 and received the award from the national nonprofit two days later.
VKOT President and Bryan High School rising senior Nicholas McDaniel said it was a bit of a shock when they first found out they had received the award because they never envisioned making it to the national stage.
“The goal for VKOT wasn’t to make it to the national level and get an award; the goal for VKOT was to be the first tobacco-free generation and to help our community become smoke-free,” he said.
Before completing the application process earlier this year, VKOT Vice President and BHS rising junior Veronica Verango said, they did not even realize it was possible for them to move beyond state recognition.
The award is not due to one particular project, but all the projects and volunteer work VKOT and its members have done over the past year.
Among the work the student-run club has done is advocate for smoke-free ordinances in local parks and in the city of Bryan, while also participating and leading litter cleanups at parks to pick up cigarette butts and other trash that might prevent kids from playing or make it dangerous for them to do so. The group also talks about the hazards of tobacco use during presentations at Bryan elementary schools.
Sergio Umanzor, VKOT secretary and BHS rising senior, said he and Verango got emotional watching the video during the May 23 gala just thinking about all the work and time the club’s members have put into their projects over the past year.
VKOT member Zaria Yarbrough, a rising junior, also said watching the video is when everything hit her. When asked if the national recognition adds pressure to the group, Yarbrough quickly answered, “Yep.”
Continuing, she said, “I know for me, I’m just now starting to come out of my shell, so being on this national stuff, just having to go to unfamiliar places and talk to people that I don’t know, that’s more pressure than anything. If you mess up, it’s kind of like. ‘Oh they really don’t know what they’re talking about.’ ”
The group has a good chemistry, though, and can cover for each other and get each other out of jams when needed, Bailey-Jones said.
“When you’re working with people that you get along well with, that are inspirational, and you push each other, the sky’s the limit — and [Yarbrough’s] living proof of that,” Bailey-Jones said.
Though Bailey-Jones — better known by her students as PBJ — found out March 15 that VKOT had received the award, she said she had to keep it a secret until Gustavo Torres, director of youth advocacy for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, could tell the club as a whole when the students returned from spring break. Then, all the members of VKOT had to keep the secret.
The application process, which began in January, was long and time-consuming, and the waiting was “excruciating,” she said, but all the members stayed focused and breathed a sigh of relief when they got the official word.
What made the award even more special, she said, is the fact an outside group of people selected VKOT as the winner.
“It’s one thing for Campaign to know about you and what you’re doing, but to be selected by people that don’t even know you ... it was such a humbling thing,” she said. “That’s when my tears flowed a little bit. ... It was just an awesome feeling. It was exciting, awesome; it was humbling. I was glad that we were able to do it, not only for VKOT, but for Bryan High School, for Bryan ISD.”
The focus this year, Bailey-Jones said, will be to push for the Food and Drug Administration to ban menthol and other flavors of tobacco products. Yarbrough added the club is also looking to broaden its scope to include alcohol and drug abuse prevention.
One of VKOT’s goals for next year, Bailey-Jones said, is to become the first group to win the Group Youth Advocate of the Year award twice in a row.
“We know it’s going to be harder. We know we can’t do what we did last year to win; we’ve got to go above and beyond, but that just lights a fire under them to do more, bigger and better,” she said. “Hey, let’s do it again. Why stop now?”