Gil Kerlikowske, the White House "Drug Czar" (center, in white) stands with students and staff beside an anti-drug mural outside the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in Crotona.
The director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy visited the Bronx yesterday, holding a press conference at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in Crotona to officially launch a new nationwide anti-drug youth campaign.
R. Gil Kerlikowske, who serves as the 6th ever “drug czar,” under the Obama administration, was given a tour by Mary Mitchell staff and other community leaders, stopping off at one of the Bronx’s most notorious drug-ridden areas—a neighborhood in Fordham-Bedford Park—as well as a more positive visit to the Garden of Happiness, a community garden on Prospect Avenue and East 181st St.
Kerlikowske’s trip was part of a greater, nationwide campaign from his office aimed to keep teenagers away from drugs. Dubbed the “influence project,” its goal is to engage young people in talking about the positive and negative pressures that influence their behavior.
The drug czar met with students from the Mary Mitchell Center and the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club to talk about what keeps them drug-free.
“I heard stories about how important their parents were to them, in guiding them,” Kerlikowske said. “I heard stories about how they felt a true responsibility for their younger siblings to make sure they didn’t get involved in drugs.”
“You have to have positive people around you,” agreed 17-year-old Michael Quiles, who’s been involved at the Mary Mitchell Center since he was 10 years old. “You pick the good ones. If you think they’re not, push them to the side.”
Kerlikowske lauded after-school and community programs like those at Mary Mitchell and Kips Bay for keeping kids safe and off the streets.
The Influence Project will hold similar events this month in Portland, OR and Milwakuee, WI, and launch a massive media campaign, including a series of local and national television commercials and an interactive website.
“I don’t think it could be more direct and more real and more honest,” Kerlikowske said. “It engages teens, and more importantly, they really engage us."
His visit comes in the wake of a huge drug-related bust, with 38 reputed gang members in Morrisania indicted on Friday and charged with counts of attempted murder and narcotics trafficking, among other offenses.
Staff at the Mary Mitchell Center have been in touch with Kerlikowske's office since last November, when several drug-related shootings took place nearby--with one happening just beside the center's playground, where students from the after-school program were playing at the time. Later that same day, at nearby 2000 Prospect Ave., a burst of gunfire left 19-year-old Felix DelValle dead. Another teen, 17-year-old Phillip Carr, was arrested and charged with the murder.
Since then, Mary Mitchell Center staff and other community leaders have stepped up their efforts to draw citywide and national attention to the issues of drug and youth violence that plague many low-income neighborhoods.
Kerlikowske's trip also included a visit to Our Lady of Refuge Church, at East 196th St., to meet with Father John Jenik, who has been fighting crime and drug activity in the parish's surrounding neighborhood for decades.