Staff at Mary Buren Elementary have begun preparations for the school's annual Red Ribbon Week celebration — a nationwide awareness campaign aimed at encouraging students to live a drug-free lifestyle.

Jennifer Geronimo, who has led the program for roughly 12 years, said that while the nature of the work has changed over the years, she enjoys working with students who want to take the pledge.

"I love that we're able to do this in our schools and reach students at a young age," she said. "We're able to reach them when they're younger and not have to wait until they're older or teenagers."

Similar to the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program popular during the 1980s and ’90s, Geronimo describes Red Ribbon Week as working toward a similar outcome but with a tamer message and geared toward a younger audience.

"D.A.R.E. is more of a curriculum targeted at [older] students to address peer pressure and is more in depth about the effect of drugs on their body," she said. "Red Ribbon Week pushes for all K-8 students to take the pledge."

A weeklong campaign filled with various awareness activities and events, Geronimo said the overall aim is to have spread the drug-free message among students and inform them about the risks associated with drug use. According to Geronimo, students take a schoolwide pledge to remain drug-free while encouraging others to abstain from drug and alcohol use.

"We try and make it fun; we decorate the school and try to present the information in a way they understand," she said. "We find age-appropriate materials tailored for their grade level and use it to inform them."

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who represents portions of northern Santa Barbara County (including Guadalupe) in the California State Assembly, distributed certificates to Mary Buren for students who decide to take the pledge to remain drug-free.

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"It's great to see so many students taking the pledge," he said of the students. Over the past few weeks, Cunningham's office has distributed more than 14,000 Red Ribbon Week certificates, including 800 to Mary Buren.

"I think it's important for students to opt in," he added. "The earlier you can get students to buy into the concept of living a drug-free lifestyle, the more successful you'll be."

A first-year assemblyman, Cunningham hopes to continue presenting Red Ribbon Week certificates to local schools and plans on pursuing legislation in line with the values expressed by the campaign. Cunningham introduced legislation this year to designate schools as marijuana-free zones, and intends to continue his push next year.

Thanking Cunningham for his certificates, Geronimo touted his involvement as an example of the program's growth and improvement.

"Now that there are more people and programs in the community, we've become much more collaborative," she said. "We're now able to expand our offerings and bring guest speakers and other people in to present."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.