"So when do you want to die?"
That was the attention-grabbing intro Shafter High School sophomore Bella Corona suggested for a story highlighting the dangers of smoking. Corona was one of about 80 students who attended a mock news conference Wednesday at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office.
The event was held in advance of the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout, which takes place on the third Thursday in November, and was crafted to dissuade teens from tobacco use while encouraging the pupils to spread the anti-tobacco message.
The gathering also gave students a chance to exercise their journalism chops by writing an article about the faux media event.
Wednesday's event marked a resurrection of a program that was born in 1999 but died off after 2009 due to a lack of funding, according to Kevin Keyes, KCSOS school prevention specialist for tobacco use prevention education.
But this year, KCSOS received a grant from the California Department of Education for nearly $1.2 million over three years for tobacco-use prevention education. Thanks to the grant and other partners, including the American Cancer Society, the Kern County Public Health Department and the American Lung Association, the program was revived.
Keyes said youth can be a strong voice in the fight against tobacco.
"The power of young people in getting adults to change behavior really should be acknowledged," Keyes said. "The reason I quit chewing tobacco was because of my children and I wanted to be around to see their children."
At the mock news conference, speakers offered the students reporting tips before a panel of health advocates and the main speaker addressed the crowd. Irma Cervantes, an award-winning reporter for KABE Univision 39, encouraged the students to do their research, find out the facts and write down questions ahead of time when they approach a story.
She challenged them to come up with an exciting lead-in to cement readers' attention to their article. That's when Corona piped up with her suggestion, much to Cervantes' delight.
"That's award-winning right there," the journalist said, pointing to Corona.
The 15-year-old said the one-liner dawned on her when she mulled over what would make people want to start reading a piece about smoking.
"It's really helpful. I'm really learning a lot," Corona said. "(I'm) learning how to start interviewing and how to ask the questions."
A spectrum of speakers offered the students their viewpoints on tobacco use. Kern Housing Authority Executive Director Stephen Pelz gave the students a rundown on the housing authority's decision to ban smoking in its properties this year. Other speakers shared their own stories of losing family members tobacco-related illnesses.
Stephen Campbell, an 18-year-old Independence High School senior, attended with his school's Black Student Union, hoping to learn more about the effects of the drugs and was enjoying everything so far about an hour into the five-hour event. He didn't have any quick quibs to start his article with yet, but he thought that might change.
"Hopefully when I start (writing) it will come to me," he said.
A committee will comb through the students' submissions and choose an article that will be featured in the February issue of B Well Magazine, which is published by The Californian.