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Facing Addiction's Young Leadership Team Looks To Address The Addiction Crisis

Nicole Barylski

Justin Sandler, David Levine, Darrell Hammond, Caleigh Aviv, Harrison Mack, Logan Geller, and William Graham at A Tribute to Lost Laughs, An Evening of Awareness and Entertainment. (Photo: PatrickMcMullan/PMC)

On Friday, August 19th, The Young Leadership Team of Facing Addiction hosted A Tribute to Lost Laughs, An Evening of Awareness and Entertainment at the Sag Harbor Cinema.

Facing Addiction Inc. is a national non-profit organization that is committed to "finding solutions to the addiction crisis by unifying the voice of the over 45 million Americans and their families directly impacted by addiction." It's Young Leadership Team consists of students who are dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of addiction and accidental overdose.

Prior to the Hamptons benefit, we sat down with Logan Geller, a 17-year-old student at Colombia Prep, and David Levine, an 18-year-old student at Colombia Prep, who are both members of the Young Leadership Team and served as A Tribute to Lost Laughs Co-Chairs. We also spoke with Young Leadership Team members and A Tribute to Lost Laughs Co-Chairs Caleigh Aviv and Justin Sandler.

Both Geller and Levine are among original Young Leadership Team members. "My mom is really good friends with Robin Aviv - she got involved with this charity about a year and a half ago," explained Levine. "Her daughter and I, our parents and Logan's mom and he thought of the idea of a young leadership group. We all came together and got a few kids from each private school to come together to start this program."

"She [Robin] told my mom about this opportunity and it was definitely something I was interested in," noted Geller. "David's been a good friend of mine since as long as I can remember."

Both teens saw a need for the organization. "Our ultimate goal is to have an awareness day for the addiction crisis at school next year," said Levine. "As of right, now we're just getting kids from different private schools so each school has an idea of what's happening."

"The whole idea of starting young with the youth leadership division of Facing Addiction is to start educating at a young age, so before you have that moment where you see someone overdosing or before you have that crucial moment that you never want to have, people know the dangers and all the harmful things that can come from experimenting or mixing drugs," added Geller. "We have been affected by it in our private school community already and we thought there's no better place to start."

Addiction is an issue that may not be widely discussed by their peers and they hope to change that. "We know a lot of families usually know someone that's been affected," Levine said. "People are surprised to hear that overdose, accidental overdose and addiction is the number one cause of death among young people today. We want that fact to hit home with people so they realize what they're doing, if they want to go experiment."

They say the way their school approaches the subject is unrelatable to students. "I always make this joke that no one can relate to the 50-year-old woman who comes in and tells us she fell asleep on her friend's couch all the time," noted Levine. "So, we're really trying to upgrade that system and that's our goal going forward." Both were required to take a health and wellness class early in high school. "We just thought that they really didn't do a good job," explained Geller. "We thought that kids really took it more as that they were missing a class rather than this is something I should pay attention to." They want to provide a method that students would find more engaging. "I would rather listen to a college kid that went to rehab and is now sober because I can relate to them," added Levine.

They feel it would hit closer to home if they brought in students who were similar in age and from the same area. "We think what better way to hear about all this crucial and very important news than from your peers?" said Levine.

Even though the Young Leadership Team is relatively new, it has already impacted their lives. "I've seen a huge difference. All my friends know that I'm in it. We're trying to start small," said Geller. "Within our little community, I've definitely felt that Facing Addiction has a large presence." Levine believes his inner circle may be a bit more cautious around him while in certain social situations. "I feel like my friends do look at me differently. I think my friends, if they're trying to do something at a party, they look at me differently," he explained. Being a part of the Young Leadership Team has definitely altered his way of thinking about experimenting. "When I hear kids say they experiment, I take a whole new approach because I know the risk behind it. Before, I'd be like, "Oh, crazy kids,'" he said. "Now I think, wow, they're really putting their life on the line. Now that we have friends that have already been to rehab, my cousin's friend - one just passed away at Vanderbilt University - we had kids from our school have something happened at college already. It hits home now. Everything is more real."

But, they feel being a part of the organization hasn't isolated them from their peers. "I don't think it alienates us at all, but I definitely think that it does make a difference - and that's what we're going for," Geller said. "I think that right now we shouldn't be seen as people that it's like don't invite them to a party. We should be seen as people that are good to have around."

One of their main goals is to educate people about the dangers of mixing drugs and alcohol. "A very controversial message we're trying to get out is we're not narcs, like you can never have a sip of a drink," Levine explained. "But we're trying to say you can't drink and mix ADD prescription pills and street drugs. It's the experiments that we're really trying to say you can't do that; excessive binge drinking, none of that."

In 2013, it was estimated that 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older (which was 9.4 percent of the population) had used an illicit drug within the past month, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "For the parents that come to our events, you have to keep an eye out for a kid who has an addictive personality because if some kid gets addicted to something like Pokémon Go, they have an addictive personality making them more likely to get into something like drinking," noted Levine.

They hope that the Hamptons fundraiser turns into an annual occurrence. Last summer The Young Leadership Team hosted their debut East End happening. The free event featured Alex Newell of Glee. After attending UNITE to Face Addiction Rally Concert in Washington, D.C. this past October, the group left inspired. "In Washington, they had a comedy event," explained Levine. "It was sort of like get your hopes up, feel happy and some of the comedians would add, 'I'm doing this for my brother' or 'I'm doing this for...' and it would really hit home. You're crying and laughing at the same time. We thought it was such a great idea we wanted to replicate it."

They were both thrilled to have the Saturday Night Live comedian perform at A Tribute to Lost Laughs. "When we have someone like Darrell Hammond, who's pretty famous, and wanted to get involved in the cause, we said why not?" Geller shared. "We're pretty excited to fill the seats. It's a great opportunity for us."

The organization has already left a lasting impact on the teens. "Something that's definitely ingrained is the dangers of addiction," said Geller. "You hear horror stories all the time." "They're becoming real," Levine added. "Our youth group is targeting everyone, but the message that it's directly, first-hand being sent to is the kids from our community because the kids that actually passed away at college last year were from the Upper East Side. Four out of the six were from the Upper East Side."

Their goal is to have students throughout New York City join the group. "We're trying to have at least one representative from every school in the Manhattan area," said Geller. "There can be a committee for it at certain schools and hopefully one day that can happen."

"We want to be the new health and wellness at schools," Levine noted. "We can send kids - not necessarily us - but who have been to rehab already that are sober, or an idea we thought of, it's very touchy, is to have parents of the kids that have passed away to speak. We really want the program to start hitting home at these schools, because right now, it's not. And we want to have an awareness day."

For Caleigh Aviv, who attends an Upper East Side private school, joining the youth group was a no-brainer. "My mom was involved in the organization from the start. When she told me about it, I knew it was something that I needed to be involved with since I hadn't heard of anything like it before," she said. "I went to the launch event in Washington for the UNITE to Face Addiction Rally Concert and after that I was really interested in the cause and the organization that, I thought, had a really strong mission. I became involved with the Young Leadership Team and host monthly meetings with other Young Leadership members to discuss addiction in our respective communities in New York City."

She is astonished by the group's wide reach. "I've gotten to learn a lot about how a non-for-profit organization works. People are really interested in learning about addiction because people aren't familiar with it [Facing Addiction] and there's nothing like it," Aviv said. "I've seen how it's really cultivated a strong following because people are really passionate about it. I am really impressed with Facing Addiction because it's tackled an issue that no other organization has before and I think it's done a really strong job in making it something that can touch all communities. It allows for young people, people that are in recovery, people that aren't touched by addiction to get involved. It allows for everyone to get involved."

She realizes that many teens will choose to try some form of either alcohol or drugs, but Aviv believes that maybe Facing Addiction can help them understand the gravity of the situation. "I hope that our message gets across, in terms of raising awareness about the dangers of mixing prescription pills, opiums and other drugs because we know that kids are going to experiment, we know that kids are going to drink, but when you mix certain pills and drugs it becomes Russian roulette," she noted. "It only takes one experience to end a life."

For Justin Sander, a 17-year-old Riverdale student, it's a very personal cause. "I have had multiple family members that have either died or suffered from addiction and I know a few people in the group, so when I heard about it I wanted to get involved," he shared. "I think it [Facing Addiction] has helped me realize how common addiction is and that it can happen to anybody. It's not just something that's way out there that's not relevant to our lives. Everyone is kind of touched by it, in some way."

He also feels that the topic is not addressed well at school. "I hope in the future we can get it out to a bunch of the schools. I think that's the one place where they try to avoid talking about it," he added. "I understand why schools don't want to talk about it. I think that it's very important for schools to recognize that it is an issue and that it's something important that they need to talk about."

For more information about Facing Addiction, visit www.facingaddiction.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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