- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

VOLIN, S.D. (AP) - Motorists passing the Dan and Staci Larson home near Volin know how the family feels about drugs.

As part of a national contest, the Larsons and their four children painted their garage doors with an anti-drug message. The two doors were painted white, each adorned with red letters and double ribbons.

The left door said, “Love Yourself,” while the right door said, “Be Drug-Free.”

“We live at the top of a hill, on the road between Volin and Wakonda,” Staci Larson said. “People saw the message as they drove past our house, and they asked us about it.”

Dan Larson also received questions about the garage during his work as an ag lender at First Premier Bank in Wakonda. In addition, the garage generated discussion at the Gayville-Volin school, where Staci teaches kindergarten and the four children - eighth grader Abby, fifth grader Molly, third grader Keely and junior kindergartner Nate - attend classes.

The message caught the attention of more than passersby, the Yankton Press and Dakotan (https://bit.ly/12vKEIR ) reported.

The effort won the Larsons first place in Region 8 for the 2014 National Red Ribbon Photo Contest. Region 8 consists of Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

The family decorated the garage to promote their commitment to living a healthy and drug-free lifestyle. The Larson children earned $1,000 for their Gayville-Volin school and an iPad for their family.

Nationally, the contest names 11 winners - 10 families in various regions throughout the nation and one school. The contest used online voting Nov. 5-19.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) co-sponsors the contest, and the Larsons’ $1,000 award will support Gayville-Volin’s drug education and prevention programs.

Gayville-Volin school counselor Natalie Selchert already holds plans for part of the money.

“We’re using some of the money to bring in a speaker,” she said. “We are booking Bobby Petrocelli to speak Jan. 22, and he’s also speaking at Vermillion that day.”

Petrocelli, a former teacher and coach as well as a speaker and author, brings a story of triumph and hope amidst personal tragedy. He woke up dazed in his kitchen, finding his wife had been killed when a pickup truck crashed through their bedroom wall. The drunk driver tested more than twice the legal level for intoxication.

The Red Ribbon photo contest takes place during National Red Ribbon Week, the nation’s oldest and largest drug prevention campaign. The promotion is sponsored by the National Family Partnership (NFP).

During October, the Larsons decorated their garage with the year’s theme, “Love Yourself, Be Drug Free.” Another Gayville-Volin family - Jason and Sarrah Miller and their third-grade daughter, Andrea - also entered the contest.

The Larson children learned of their winning entry last Friday, but the parents knew it for the previous two weeks.

“They (contest officials) emailed me about the entry qualifications. I was worried that it was bad news, that we had been disqualified. But it was good news that we had won,” Staci said. “I kept it a secret from the kids, until they were going to announce the winner, but it was really tough. The kids would ask me if we had heard (the results) or how I thought we had done. I just had to dummy up.”

Finally, the time had come for the national announcement and Staci knew she couldn’t keep the secret any longer. Using the “Elf On The Shelf” toy, she instructed the children they had received red envelopes that couldn’t be opened until 7:30 the next morning. She shot video as the children opened their envelopes and learned the good news.

Abby and Keely told the Press & Dakotan the garage painting session went quickly, but removing the glass chalk was another matter. Still, the effort was well worth it, beyond winning the prizes, they said.

“It’s important to get the message out,” Keely said.

Selchert agreed, saying the national recognition will reinforce the lessons she teaches on a daily basis. She uses age-appropriate messages for each grade.

For the elementary students, it’s more a matter of informing them about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. She teaches them that a substance may be legal yet harmful, and substances intended for good - such as prescription drugs - can be abused.

At the junior/senior high level, she works with the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) chapter. She promotes peer support and the importance of assertiveness and awareness. She also works to counter the media’s powerful messages.

Selchert hopes next year’s Red Ribbon photo contest will produce another Gayville-Volin winner. “We hope this is a tradition that continues to grow, and the community gets even more excited next year,” she said.

In that respect, Staci Larson noted this year’s online contest drew 188,000 votes nationally, three times last year’s number.

Gayville-Volin elementary principal Patrick Beeman said the contest helped the district’s teachers move into discussions about drugs and alcohol at school. “This contest was great for our community and school. It opened the doors for a lot of positive conversation and dialogue,” he said.

Staci Larson saw the contest’s impact on her own family. “It makes it so much easier to have a conversation. It’s a natural reason to talk about the subject. It doesn’t just come out of the blue,” she said.

She hopes the family’s garage doors hold a similar impact for others.

“I’d like to think that someone who drove past our home during Red Ribbon Week went home and talked about the dangers of drugs with their own family,” she said.

“If that happened for each home or school that was decorated across the country, then Red Ribbon Week was successful!”

___

Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, https://www.yankton.net/

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