A diverse group of community Key Leaders gathered for the Kutztown Strong Meet and Greet on July 28 at the Kutztown Area Middle School.

In Senator Judy Schwank’s opening remarks in regard to the drug problem in Berks County, she stated, “We can’t arrest our way out of it.”

Although Schwank admitted to the large group of volunteers at the Kutztown Strong Key Leaders’ Meet and Greet that “there are no single solutions,” she expressed her pride in the initiative by calling it “one of the best efforts I’ve seen statewide.”

Schwank closed her portion of the preliminary speeches by announcing to the Key Leaders gathered that she is “proud to represent a community that is doing something like this.”

Kutztown Area School District Superintendent Kathy Metrick relayed how the active list of Key Leaders involved in the Kutztown Strong program, intending to reach goals in the community to promote healthy behaviors in the youth, has grown to more than 90 diverse members, ranging from middle school students to educators to local farmers. She confirmed that night that “the real purpose of our meeting is for you to understand your role as a Key Leader.”

In Metrick’s address, she discussed the interactive newsletter, the Cougar Chronicle, which is written by Kutztown Area Middle and High School students.

“How powerful it is that our older students are reaching out to our younger students!” said Metrick.

Representing the Cougar Chronicle were Kutztown Area Middle School Art teacher Kris Tuerk and incoming high school student Amy Yoder.

Yoder described that she and her fellow submitters to the Chronicle compose articles about the danger of illegal drugs and about being “self-aware.” Yoder said she is “really worried about the community” and that the prevalence of drugs is “heartbreaking.”

Her teacher, Tuerk, explained her involvement in Kutztown Strong, “I raised my kids in this community. I’ve always been proactive.”

Kutztown Optimist Club member Hugh Smith had the original idea for the Cougar Chronicle. He and Brenda Winkler, former Kutztown Area School District Superintendent, shared their reasons for their involvement with Kutztown Strong. Winkler said her ties to the community where she lives and worked keep her motivated. She said Smith is “a great example of giving back.” Smith added that Winkler is his “role model” and that his heart is in the community where his “kids went to school.”

Kutztown Area High School students Shelby Mengel, Class of 2015; Patrick Moyer, Class of 2016; and Niki Nolte, an incoming tenth grader and daughter of Kutztown Strong’s Public Relations Chairperson and Secretary Melissa Nolte, were all on hand at the Meet and Greet event. Mengel, who is leaving to attend La Roche College, expressed her sadness at leaving the group of high school students who have met weekly to orchestrate events to engage the teens in the community. She said she would “love to be part of it longer.”

Moyer proudly exclaimed that “what this group is doing is great” and talked about his attendance at one of the group’s events leading him to become an instrumental part of the planning process. Nolte, as another one of the teens whom Metrick described as “actively involved”, emphatically said, “I definitely want to stop the drugs.”

Kelly Neyhart, a retired professor from Kutztown University, acts as advisor and facilitator for the high school action group. He expressed the importance to empower students to make their own decisions in inspiring their peers toward more healthy behaviors.

A resident of Tamaqua and attending Kutztown University for her Master’s Degree in Social Work, Sheryl Melveen works under a grant written by Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz of the Council on Chemical Abuse. Melveen attends training and meetings, both state and federal, and funnels information to Kutztown Strong to assist in program development. She described Kutztown Strong as “a beautiful model.”

Goodman-Hinnershitz complimented Kutztown, saying, “You’re brave enough to let your community know what the problems are.” She reaffirmed that Kutztown Strong is “following a proven track with the Communities That Care” but that the initiative requires “a long term commitment. They’re going to have to stay the course.”

As a Kutztown Area High School guidance counselor, Andy Brett talked about the importance of involving the younger children in the community with the Kutztown Strong programs. Metrick relayed in her initial comments that exposures to illegal drug use frequently occur by age 12. Brett stressed that the district “has to start with elementary school. You do what you can and that’s what this is about.”

Cory Koehler, a Kutztown Area High School student who is active in Kutztown Strong, addressed the Key Leaders assembled at the Kutztown Strong Meet and Greet, alongside Niki Nolte. Koehler summarized the mission ahead of the diverse group before him.

“You can’t just preach. You have to act. Without kogs, a machine is just an empty construct,” said Koehler.

For more information about upcoming Kutztown Strong events or to become involved, visit www.kutztownstrong.com.

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