The Examiner

Youth Rally Reaches Out to Teens to Combat Bullying, Substance Abuse

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Justin Fatica, a speaker from the Hard as Nails Ministry, talked to more than 200 teenagers Monday night in Hawthorne about how to deal with problems such as drugs, alcohol and bullying.
Justin Fatica, a speaker from the Hard as Nails Ministry, talked to more than 200 teenagers Monday night in Hawthorne about drugs, alcohol and bullying.

More than 200 local teenagers turned out for a youth rally Monday night to tackle the difficult problems of drugs, alcohol, suicide and bullying.

The event, held at Holy Rosary Church in Hawthorne, featured an interactive session with Justin Fatica of the Hard as Nails Ministry. Fatica told the youngsters that they are important and should never give up on life, no matter what challenges they face.

“Whether they feel like garbage one day, or they feel great, the goal is that they know they are amazing, and that no matter what comes their way, they know they can get through it,” Fatica said.

During the hour-and-a-half program, Fatica had teens share their greatest challenges. Whether it be thoughts of suicide, addiction or absentee parents, he stressed other kids have face similar problems as well.

Several teenagers were brave enough to stand up and share their stories, many of them breaking into tears as they related the struggles they faced, from feeling like outcasts to disabilities. After each speaker, Fatica encouraged others who faced the same problem to stand and hug the storyteller.

Fatica explained that the session was not only meant to help those who struggle realize that they aren’t alone, but to reach the bullies in the audience as well. He hopes that when a bully sees what their potential victim is going through, they realize that that person needs love and support instead of ridicule.

The Hard as Nails Ministry teaches lessons from a Catholic perspective. In addition to increasing a sense of community among youth, it aims to “awaken kids to the power of God’s love,” Fatica said. He pointed out that religion is not meant to be a dividing line between kids, and after attending Monday night’s rally, Fatica hoped teens walk away with a more accepting attitude toward others.

“Everybody wants to be loved and there are a lot of kids that don’t come from a background that is faith, but that doesn’t mean we can’t love everybody,” Fatica said. “If you don’t love everybody, then there’s no point for this.”

Aura Zelaya, a teacher and mother of a 16-year-old Pleasantville High School student, was one of three parents who helped organize the event and pleasantly surprised at the attendance. She explained that she and two other parents, Mike Ricciardi and Anna Ciraco, knew families were concerned about the issues of drugs and bullying and the three wanted to help.

The event was supported and attended by representatives of the Pleasantville and Mount Pleasant school districts and police departments, which Zelaya believes helped reinforce the message of community support.

“It sends a good message to kids that we’re behind them,” she said.

Nearly 100 parents turned out as well. Most attended a presentation by the Mount Pleasant Police Department’s youth officers, Detective Martin Greenberg and Officer Lauren Valentino.

During their presentation, the two officers said there’s a greater emphasis placed today on kids looking out for each other and seeking out an adult if they have concerns about behavioral changes in friends. They urged parents not to be offended if another person reaches out with concerns about their child and stressed open communication between parents regarding drugs, alcohol and letting kids attend parties or unsupervised events.

“Most parents don’t want to give in, but they give in because they haven’t communicated with everyone else,” Greenberg said. “There’s nothing wrong with picking up that phone and saying ‘Hey, how do you feel?'”

The officers stressed that parents should keep communication lines open with their child, but noted that pushing too hard can cause kids to shut down. They suggested talking to children in the car, for example, where they may feel more comfortable because there’s no eye contact. Regular casual conversations regarding topical issues such as drugs and alcohol are important so youngsters feel comfortable talking about sensitive issues they may face.

“Hopefully this is not just a one time, annual event but we’ll take the goals of the event and make it a daily initiative so that every day…we’re challenging the kids and we’re challenging ourselves to do what tonight is all about, and that’s to make ourselves better,” said Joseph Kenner, deputy commissioner of the Department of Social Services, who attended the event on behalf of County Executive Rob Astorino.

Greenberg added that adults must walk a fine line between being their child’s friend and being a parent. He praised the community for doing a better job of that over the past decade.

“I’ve seen parents take back parenting in our community,” he said, adding that Monday’s program was a step in the right direction.

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