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Leading by example

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“Walk the walk” is the motto of Seneca High School Substance Awareness Coordinator Erin Lawler, who was recently selected as the 2015 W. Cary Edwards State Volunteer of the Year by the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

“I educate my students about local trends with substances and the importance of being a role model by connecting their words with their actions,” Lawler said.

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Lawler believes life is very short, so she tries to instill the quality of giving back to the community into her students.

“For me, as the substance coordinator, I believe in leading by example, and if I’m not doing that as well, then what kind of leader am I?” Lawler said.

Lawler was nominated by the Tabernacle Municipal Alliance for her close work with the organization in developing and initiating drug and alcohol programs for Seneca and nearby elementary and middle schools.

The program she was specifically recognized for and has brought a great deal of success to her career is the “Drug Squad.” The program has been running for 11 years. Lawler created it to generate positive peer pressure, reinforce the power of good decision-making and encourage students to become a part of a supportive and fun drug- and alcohol-free culture.

“Our kids are subjected to so much peer pressure in terms of drinking and partying. My intention was to shift gears and do the opposite of that by enforcing that drugs and alcohol are actually not the cool thing to be apart of,” Lawler said.

In the program, high school students undergo training on the negative effects of drugs and then present their findings to students in schools throughout South Jersey.

The “Drug Squad” also includes a significant community service component by exposing students to things such as a Camden soup kitchen and a homeless outreach center in Philadelphia to allow them the opportunity to witness some negative effects of drugs and alcohol first hand.

The program is rapidly growing, as Lawler now gets 80–100 students to interview each year, and she selects the top 30. Kids in eighth grade who want to be a part of the group after hearing about it through older siblings are now reaching out to Lawler as well.

“The goal of this great group of kids is to ultimately not just change their lives but to create a domino effect and to also change everyone else’s with their strong morals,” Lawler said.

Lawler also has worked with the Tabernacle Municipal Alliance in supporting the Seneca After Prom Lock-in Party and the Seneca Grad Bash, two drug- and alcohol-free events sponsored by the Seneca Parents Group.

Lawler could not say enough about the alliance’s role in what the school does with the kids.

“They provide that sort of collaboration between school and community and have been a critical part of what we do,” Lawler said. “They’ve allowed the substance programs to thrive because of the funding that they have provided.”

According to the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse website, the grassroots network of alliances and its volunteers are more critical than ever in helping to communicate and execute the systems necessary to evoke environmental change in communities across New Jersey.

Lawler said it is not only important to communicate these principles to the students but also to have a relationship with them so they are listening to someone they respect and can confide in.

Lawler was honored at a ceremony at the Mercer County Community College Conference Center in West Windsor on Thursday, Sept. 24.

“It’s such an honor,” Lawler said. “I’m honored to be in phenomenal company of the other recipients of this award who are also doing amazing things to combat substance abuse in their respective communities.”

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