Youth who aspire to greatness can do themselves a favor by making healthy decisions and refraining from underage drinking.
That was the message Persell Middle School students heard from someone who has already achieved greatness.
Aly Raisman, gold medalist and captain of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, joined with The Century Council to bring its Ask, Listen, Learn: Kids and Alcohol Don't Mix program to the students at Persell. The assembly focused on teaching kids to make healthy decisions, stay physically active and to say "no" to underage drinking.
From left are Phil Cammarata, Persell Middle School principal, Aly Raisman, U.S. Olympic gold medal winner in gymnastics; and Ralph Blackman, The Century Council president and chief executive officer; at Persell Middle School on Friday.
P-J?photos by Gavin Paterniti
After being introduced by Phil Cammarata, Persell Middle School principal, Raisman walked on stage to deliver a short speech to students.
'CHOOSE WHAT YOU LOVE'
"I was in middle school, just like you guys, and I was training about 25 hours a week at the gym," Raisman said. "It was a lot of hard work and dedication and I know that I definitely would not have made the Olympic team if I gave into peer pressure or did underage drinking. So it's very important that you do what you want to do and choose what you love to do in life. Just have a goal in mind, always reach for it, never give up and always follow your dreams."
Raisman's speech was followed by an interactive, virtual running game in which students would run in place on an electronic pad set on the stage floor.
Their movements would be mimicked on a screen displaying a runner going down a path. At intervals the virtual runner would be prompted by true or false questions, appearing on the screen, regarding underage drinking and making good choices. Upon choosing the correct answer, the runner could proceed onward.
After several students participated, Raisman played the game herself and chose her answers according to audience consensus.
The game was followed by a question and answer session in which students asked Raisman questions such as: what her favorite part of being in the Olympics was; if she had any tips for someone who is wanting to start gymnastics; what it was like to perform in the Olympics in front of the entire world; and what it was like winning the gold medal.
Raisman then took some pictures with students onstage and the students were dismissed back to class.
"It really means a lot for me to be here today," Raisman said. "This is the first of many middle schools I'm going to go to for (the) Century Council so it means a lot to me and I'm really excited. It's just fun to be able to tell them about my story and how important it is to live a healthy lifestyle."
Student reaction to having Raisman visit their school was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. In several instances throughout the assembly, the audience would spontaneously take up chanting, "Aly! Aly! Aly!" and its final round of applause as Raisman left the stage was deafening.
"It was amazing (seeing Raisman in person)," said Emma Schnars, a student.
"It's amazing that when she was just our age she was practicing 25 hours in the gym," said Natalie Carlson, also a student.
Both Emma and Natalie want to be Olympic swimmers, and they said in unison what they learned from Raisman was that they need to, "Practice a lot."
ABOUT THE CENTURY COUNCIL
The Century Council is a national, independent nonprofit organization that was founded in 1991. It is a leader in the fight to eliminate drunk driving and underage drinking while promoting responsible decision-making regarding beverage alcohol.
The Ask, Listen, Learn program is a creative, multimedia program for middle school aged children and their parents. It is designed to provide them with information and strategies to help facilitate the conversation about the dangers of underage drinking. According to Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of the Century Council, selecting schools for Raisman to speak in requires a lot of planning and foresight.
"We've just begun our contractual relationship with Aly to represent The Century Council and the Ask, Listen, Learn program and go out and be a good role model for middle school kids," said Blackman. "As we've begun to work together, we were looking for opportunities to get her into schools as she's traveling around for other commitments. The most important thing, because she's literally been traveling since the Olympics, is to look at her schedule and find places that are convenient and efficient in terms of the time, travel and all the wear and tear that that (can have on her) while she competes. We do this kind of event in middle schools all across the country. Generally, we want to stay close to the venue of her performance because as soon as we're done in the school, Aly then goes and has rehearsal. So, again, in terms of using everybody's time efficiently, that's one thing that's very important. We could have gotten a bigger school, let's say in Buffalo, we could have gotten other dignitaries but that's not really what this is about. It's about the kids and, frankly, it's about using Aly's time as efficiently as possible so she has the opportunity to give the message out."
'VERY SPECIAL FOR THE KIDS'
Cammarata was very pleased by the students' response to having Raisman appear at the school.
"I think what made it very special for me was the reaction of the kids," he said. "The kids just loved it and it was very, very exciting for me. To me, it's awesome having an Olympic gold medalist here but it was really awesome to see the enthusiasm in the kids and hear their screams and chanting."
After the assembly, Raisman went to the school's library with her parents to film a public service announcement regarding the importance of parents communicating to their children the dangers of underage drinking. Film crews from NBC were on hand to tape the PSA as well as record the assembly. According to Cammarata, Persell was subjected to months of scrutiny by the NBC crews.
"They've planned this for months," he said. "They started coming here in September and then October and November, as well. We looked at the auditorium and they said, 'Yep, this is a perfect fit.' Then they went down the hallways. They were looking at lighting and they wanted specific artwork because they're filming and it's going out to the whole country, so they wanted it to look good."
Raisman is in Jamestown to perform in the Progressive Skating and Gymnastics Spectacular, which is taking place at the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena at 7 p.m. today. The event, and the public service announcement that was filmed at Persell, will be nationally televised by NBC on Jan. 19 from 4-6 p.m.