“If we can get change at a local level, we can get change across the state,” said Karolina Wuneta, 16, another Key Club member, speaking on the green as the last student groups took the pledge. “Small change can turn into big change.”
After the last pledges were taken, DePaolo Middle School Principal Frank Pepe walked onto the stage and told the students why just reciting the pledge is not enough.
The crowd, boisterous at times as people made their way onto the stage, grew quiet as Pepe shared his own story with a similar pledge.
“Two of my buddies, Chris and Jimmy, they were best friends. They came from good homes, they were smart. My problem was, I watched them drink every now and again. We’d be at parties and I never said a word to them, ever. I can still picture myself waiting in line at Jim’s wake,” Pepe said.
Pepe explained that Jim didn’t just graduate from high school, but from alcohol, as well. As he moved into illegal drugs, he died one night in a drug deal.
After Jim’s death, Chris’ drinking worsened and he too died one night driving home after drinking when he crashed into a telephone pole.
“So two of my close friends, who made a similar pledge, they didn’t follow the pledge. And the very thing they stood up against, is what took both of their lives,” Pepe said.
He challenged the students there to stick to their pledge, and to make sure their fellow students don’t go down the wrong path, either.
“If I had the opportunity now to have a conversation with either Chris or Jim, I would,” Pepe said. “I lost that opportunity. You have to remember together you’re stronger and together we can eliminate the problem.”
“Hearing him speak at the end, I think, was the best thing in all the five years that I’ve been here,” said Steve Hunt, whose two sons, Nathan, 12, and Owen, 13, both took part in the ceremony with their football and lacrosse teams.
“Hearing him speak means a lot to these kids,” Hunt said, because most of the students there know Pepe, which makes the message more real. “It’s not talk, it actually happens; people die from drugs and alcohol.”
“I think that that was heartfelt and I think it really left a strong feeling in everyone’s heart to think twice before they do something wrong,” Trish Kenefick said about Pepe’s story.
Kenefick started holding the Red Ribbon Rally 27 years ago and has watched it grow as more town organizations reach out to be a part of it.
After Pepe spoke, the attendees lit candles and formed a circle for a moment of silence, followed by the playing of Taps.
Kenefick said more than 500 candles were sold, with some attendees going without.
“I think that everyone in the whole community cares. I think we all care about each other, we’re a close-knit community,” she said.