Former NBA Player Brings a Powerful Message to WHSNovember 28, 2014
by Jillian DiPersio
Drugs, alcohol, self-harm: all of these touch high school students, whether by personally taking part in them or knowing someone who does. To address these aspects of young adult life and educate students on the risks of this behavior, Jessica O’Neil, State Farm agent and mother of children in the Windham School District, spearheaded an initiative to bring former NBA player, Chris Herren, to speak with the students of Windham High School.
Herren, a high school basketball star in his hometown of Fall River, Mass., went on to play for Boston College and Fresno State. In 1999 he was picked in the second round of the NBA draft for the Denver Nuggets, with whom he played until he was traded to the Boston Celtics in 2000. Herren also played in several leagues overseas. Despite his enormous success as an athlete, Herren was plagued by a drug addiction that eventually caused his downfall. Over the years he had abused alcohol, cocaine, Oxycontin, and heroin. After overdosing on heroin, he crashed his car near the house where he grew up in Fall River. Paramedics revived him, telling him “you’ve been dead for 30 seconds” and looked at him as if he were “just another junkie,” said Herren.
Herren, who spoke last week at Windham High School, was able to recover after over a year in rehabilitation in attempts to save himself and his family. He started teaching basketball and has created the organizations, Hoop Dreams, the Herren Project, and Project Purple. He has spent the past four years travelling around the country telling his story to over 5 million students.
O’Neil heard about Herren’s story and believed his message needed to be shared with the students of Windham. “What Chris Herren, former NBA player, has to share with you today, it’s serious and it’s around us,” she said at the beginning of the assembly. Rather than the school paying for Herren to come speak, O’Neil rallied local businesses that donated funds to the event. State Farm, Coco Early Associates, Windham Pilates, Merrimack Mortgage, Donovan Law, and Northstar Financial Planning all contributed to having Herren speak at WHS. Windham High decided to extend an invitation to the eighth-grade class at Windham Middle School so they could hear the message as well. WHS Principal Ryan Kaplan expressed the “need and importance in actively sharing the message today.”
After showing a video highlighting his career as a basketball player, Herren began speaking to the students on an honest, personal level. He told the students that he remembered listening to presentations in high school about drug addictions. He would tell himself then, “That will never be me; these talks are a waste of time.”
He told the story of the first time he spoke with students: there were over 2,000 in the bleachers. Before he started his talk he prayed, “Please God, just one kid,” knowing his efforts would be worth it if he influenced just one student. He said he later received an email from a girl at the school whose father was an alcoholic. She resorted to cutting herself, but, after hearing Herren’s story, decided, “I’m going to be that one (student he influences).” Every 30 days she e-mails Herren to tell him she has gone another month without self-harm.
One of Herren’s main points to the Windham students was that schools tend to show their students the terrible effects of drugs and alcohol, but “we don’t show you day one (of an addiction),” he said. Herren explained that it all starts with “red Solo cups” or a Saturday night in a friend’s basement.
Herren said that people often ask him what he would say if his 15-year-old son were to come home drunk or high. Herren explained that he would ask, “Why, man? How come being you isn’t good enough?”
WHS senior Cassandra Haley felt Herren’s message was particularly striking because “he talked about the beginnings and no one talks about the beginnings; they always talk about the ends. They show you where you end up and how you will be for the rest of your life, but they don’t tell you how it all starts.”
Likewise, senior Cassandra Salafia found that Herren made “it clear that you’re using drugs not because it’s cool or because it’s fun but because there’s something else going on in your life that is bothering you … ‘Why do I not like myself today?’ And that’s pretty much the reason why people use drugs: it’s an escape mechanism from life.”
Herren told the students, “I promise you today that there’s kids in here struggling.” He told students that while his individual story concerned drugs, his message extends far beyond cocaine and heroin.
“Struggle is struggle,” he said. He confided in the students, “I wish when I was your age I had the strength to say, ‘this is what I’m struggling with, can you help me?’”