Mattamuskeet sixth-grader wins Red Ribbon photo contest, encourages community to live drug-free

Published 3:07 pm Monday, February 5, 2024

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Mattamuskeet Elementary School (MES) student Jonna Williams was one out of 20 winners from all over the country of the 13th annual National Red Ribbon Week photo contest. Held in conjunction with Red Ribbon Week, this contest invites families and schools across the United States to decorate the fronts of their homes, schools and posters with a double-looped red ribbon to create awareness about the importance of staying drug-free. Williams was one out of five regional home winners to be awarded $1,000 for her school and an Apple iPad.

The Red Ribbon Campaign began in honor of Enrique (Kiki) S. Camarena. After serving two years in the Marine Corps, the Mexicali, Mexico native was a Calexico fireman, police officer and Imperial County deputy sheriff. He joined the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1974. He became one of Mexico’s biggest marijuana and cocaine traffickers and in 1985 was close to unlocking a multi-billion-dollar drug pipeline. Before he could expose the drug trafficking operations to the public, he was kidnapped while heading to lunch with his wife. Kiki was tortured and murdered; his body was found almost a month later.

This event led to the only time in history that both the United States and Mexico borders were closed. After Camarena’s death, he was honored with the highest award granted by the DEA, the Administrator’s Award of Honor. Together, a congressman and high school friend of Camarena’s launched coalitions in Kiki’s name and club members wore red ribbons in honor of their fallen friend, pledging to lead drug-free lives in an effort to recognize the sacrifices made by Camarena and others on behalf of all Americans.

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The Red Ribbon Campaign was formalized in 1988 by the National Family Partnership, who now sponsors National Red Ribbon Week alongside the DEA. The 2023 campaign theme was “Be kind to your mind. Live drug free,” which had to be included on the posters that were photographed and entered into the annual contest. Twenty winners are chosen out of five regions for both home and school submissions. There are 12 states in Region 2, which is the region Williams took home gold for the home category. Approximately 18 million students qualify for entry, in about 17,000 school systems nationwide.

Williams is a sixth-grade student at MES in Swan Quarter. She’s been on the verge of a successful entrepreneurial career since she was five years old, when she started selling vegetables from her grandfather’s garden out of a stand at the Swan Quarter gas station. The 12-year-old now runs an ice cream stand at the station in the summertime with her sister, and was more than up for the task of entering the Red Ribbon photo contest when presented with the opportunity by peer support specialist Mike Wheeler with the Hyde County Health Department.

“He told me about the competition and what it was about, and I said that we should do it and we went ahead and decorated my house and entered,” Jonna explained. Wheeler helped Williams gather supplies and prepare signs, house decorations and a mail box for the photo contest.

Wheeler has worked in substance abuse for a number of years. He began by working in the prison system with those who had struggled to live drug-free before deciding he wanted to help individuals prior to being behind bars. In working with the director of the health department in Hyde, Wheeler has been involved with several awareness efforts which have addressed the stigma around mental health and have shed light on addition recovery. After presenting the Red Ribbon Campaign idea to Williams, the two teamed up to bring the whole community together to show their support.

“There were probably fifty to seventy-five people in our front yard for this photo,” shared Emma Williams, proud mother of Jonna. The sixth-grader reached out to her local sheriff’s office, fire department, EMS personnel, task force members, county commissioners, and locals within her neighborhood to come out and group together for a photo surrounding a handmade Red Ribbon Campaign poster. “They all showed up, full-force,” Wheeler shared. The photo that ended up being submitted was one of Jonna alongside members of the Hyde County Sheriff’s Office, all holding a large Red Ribbon Campaign sign. Little did she know that photo would be included on the Red Ribbon Campaign’s website alongside the other 2023 regional winners.

Williams said she was in PE class when they announced over the loud speaker that she had won the Red Ribbon competition. “I jumped up and screamed and went to my friends and we all just jumped up and got excited.” The MES student went on to be a part of two community Christmas parades featuring signage about the Red Ribbon Campaign.

“This is the longest running drug prevention effort,” Wheeler explained. “I told her that her chances of winning were astronomical, but it only takes one person to make a difference.” Williams hopes that her school and classmates will become more involved with the campaign and continue to show their support.