Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

An enthusiastic crowd of hundreds of students, faculty, Riverhead residents, police officers and local politicians marched Friday morning through downtown Riverhead cheering, chanting and displaying signs with a clear and loud message: “Say NO to Drugs.”

This year marks the 34th anniversary of the Riverhead CAP march, a yearly event that brings the community together with a message of education and prevention of underage drug and alcohol use.

Fifth and sixth grade students, all wearing white t-shirts with the message “Drug Free Body” on them and waving hand-made, colorful signs, first met with invited guests in their classrooms at Pulaski Street School.

The diverse range of guests — from police officers to local elected officials, firefighters and other s— joined students, volunteers and faculty on the front lawn of the school at about 9:30 a.m., where they proceeded to march down Roanoke Ave, around Second Street, up Hallet Avenue and back to the school. The high school band led the march, which lasted about 30 minutes.

Roanoke Avenue Elementary and St. David’s School students, faculty and staff lined the curbs of Roanoke Avenue to cheer them on. Other Riverhead residents waved and proclaimed their support from windows and doors.

The march ended with a rally at Pulaski Street School, where students celebrated the completion of a two-year prevention program led by CAP. Local elected officials spoke, as well as Suffolk Sheriff Dr. Errol Toulon Jr., this year’s guest of honor and keynote speaker.

Toulon, the county’s first African-American to be elected to a non-judicial countywide office and a two-time cancer survivor, stressed the importance of good decision-making, and how choices can close or open doors for someone. He said that the issue of alcohol and drug prevention was “extremely personal,” and that growing up in the South Bronx, the message “no to drugs” was not frequently heard.

“Some of the people that have been closest to me in my life have struggled with drugs and alcohol. I witnessed how experimenting with drugs can quickly spiral out of control,” he said.

“Some of these kids struggled in school because they were drinking and doing drugs, and then as they got older, they lost opportunities to attend college and trade schools, which made it more difficult to find jobs,” he said.

Toulon also emphasized that students have a support system within the school and the community, and that students should rely on the individuals that are closest.

“If you look around, the men and women in uniform, especially my men or women in the sheriff’s office, those from Riverhead PD, your teachers, your counselors, your family members, all of them care about you,” he said. “We are all here and so if life isn’t going the way you want it to be, and believe me, there’s going to be a lot of days when it doesn’t go exactly how you want it to go, remember, there are people you can turn to, you don’t have to turn to drugs and alcohol.”

Toulon ended his speech by encouraging students with one simple, but powerful message.

“Dream bigger, stay in school, reach out for help when life is getting stressful, and say no to drugs,” Toulon said.

Schools superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez said that it was especially important to start educating students about the dangers of drug and alcohol early, so by the time they go to middle school and high school they are prepared. She also thanked CAP and its executive director, Felicia Scocozza, as well as teachers and leaders for “continuously supporting our students as we push forward.”

Riverhead supervisor Laura Jens-Smith also congratulated students for their efforts in learning about drug and alcohol prevention and told them that the community is “behind them.”

“Whenever you need help, we are here for you,” she said. “We encourage you to seek us out us and to have us help you and for you to continue making good choices and to be influences for your friends in making good decisions.”

That message was echoed by county legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming, who said that by making good decisions, students are not only making a right choice for their life, but inspiring others do the same.

Jens-Smith presented CAP board president Brian Stark with a proclamation on behalf of the Town of Riverhead praising CAP and the students, and declaring June 7, 2019 “Say No to Drugs Day.”

“Let it be known that the town of Riverhead salutes the young people who demonstrate their common sense by saying no to drugs, and who exhibit leadership by encouraging their friends to do the same. And now therefore, every resident is urged to support and emulate the commendable actions of these young people who give us the hope that our next generation may be drug free,” Jens-Smith read.

This year’s CAP essay contest top prizes went to fifth grader Logan Dempsey, who wrote an essay entitled “CAP has provided many strategies and tools to keep us healthy,” and sixth grader John Ellis, who wrote “Anyone can be a leader.” Both winners received $100 gift certificates from Tanger Outlets.

The event ended with a big round of applause. As a treat for students, Friday’s lunch was provided by the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge #1742 and the PTO.

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Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria