Organization gains national recognition for advocacy work within community

Arissa Mejia

A mother and a child walk through Sue Haswell Park near Downtown Bryan one Saturday morning in late fall. As they cross the grass, they see a group of teenagers with trash bags picking up cigarette butts from the ground. The students are with the Vikings Kick Out Tobacco group and work within the community to increase awareness about tobacco prevention.

VKOT sponsor Patricia Bailey-Jones, better known as Ms.PBJ by the students, was notified at the end of the last school year that VKOT was selected to receive an award at the national level during the summer. 

“VKOT was the recipient of The National Group Youth Advocate of the Year award that is sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids,” Bailey-Jones said. “That is a national tobacco prevention group based in Washington DC, and they paid for us to come and receive our award.”

VKOT focuses on the prevention, education, and reduction of tobacco use amongst students and people in the community. All the work the club did over the year led to their recognition on a national level. 

“We do tobacco projects at school and, this year, one of our main focus will be tackling e-cigs and juuling,” Bailey-Jones said. “We will also do things in the community like presenting at elementary schools because research has shown that the earlier you can get children focused on not participating in this behavior, the more effective it is.”

VKOT President Nicholas McDaniel remembers finding out about the national recognition and how many emotions came into play.

“We were all in Ms. PBJ’s room and I was behind her and everyone was sitting on the side as I was trying to listen to what she was saying on the phone,” Nicholas said. “All of a sudden Ms.PBJ drops the phone and screamed and we knew we won. Veronica kept asking if we won the award and then everyone starts jumping around. I jumped over a desk and almost fell, Sergio was screaming and dancing, Zari’s jaw dropped to the floor, and everyone almost started crying.” 

VKOT Vice President Veronica Verango takes this experience in a positive way and was able to get more information about tobacco from higher ups. 

“Going to Washington DC was a great learning experience because we all got to meet educators and those who work in a professional business with tobacco,” Veronica said. “It was nice to be recognized for all our hard work.”

Veronica joined VKOT to learn about the harmful effects of tobacco and believes tobacco prevention is important. 

“Tobacco is the number one preventable death,” Veronica said. “It’s more harmful than drugs and alcohol combined, and it is not fair for innocent people to be affected by other people’s choices.”

VKOT worked to push Texas government officials to raise the smoking age to 21 and worked with local officials to create stricter ordinances.

“We approached government officials with personal stories to hit their emotions and back them up with facts to show we did our research,” Veronica said. “We approached them more than once, had follow-ups, and sent emails. We never gave up.”

The trip to Washington DC also made their bonds grow stronger as a group. 

“My favorite part of the trip was whenever we all got to get together as representatives,” Nicholas said. “We played Uno in the lobby and we got loud while being ourselves.”

VKOT plans to improve the club and continue working to make the community a better and safer place. 

 “We plan to take the club to new heights,” Bailey-Jones said. “Even though we won the national award, we’re not going to stop there. Our goal now is to try to get other tobacco prevention groups in Bryan-College Station, and surrounding areas and get them into the schools. We’re also adding alcohol and other drugs to our focus.”