Students of South Colonie huddle under the contest winning billboard. (Photo by John Noetzel)
COLONIE — This town has seen what heroin can do to snuff out the life of one of its own. With this in mind, Colonie Central High School art students once again put their minds and skills to use in an attempt to prevent it from happening to someone else.
For the second consecutive year, students dedicated their annual billboard design contest to an anti-heroin use campaign following the overdose death of 2010 graduate Laree Farrell and the growing use of heroin among teens today.
Two busloads of CCHS students from art teachers Christine Festin and Justin Defazzio’s classes were on hand this morning for the secret unveiling on New Karner Road, just south of Central Avenue.
“I know this was a hard project to do because it’s emotionally taxing,” Defazzio told the group, as workers high atop the billboard got set to unwrap the winner. “But this is our way of making a difference in people’s lives. Remember, one person will win but this is indicative of all of our efforts.”
And with that, junior Skylar Betkowski stepped forward as she saw her winning design unveiled from 54 student entries. Her “Welcome to Heroin” entry featuring the traditional green highway sign and font with an arrow pointing one way to Addiction and the other way to Death. It will be on large scale display there for at least a month.
“When you enter heroin there is no way to escape,” said Betkowski, as she stood beneath her sprawling design. “One way or another it’s going to get you.”
Betkowski was joined at the site by her parents, South Colonie district officials, local media, and family and friends of Laree Farrell.
Holding a framed photo of her daughter, mother Patty Farrell once again implored the students to stay away from the “poison” that killed her daughter.
“I’m here today because she’s not,” Patty Farrell said with tears in her voice. “Please don’t ever go near this drug. Like the billboard says, it will lead to addiction and, I’m here to tell you firsthand, it will lead to death.”
Like last year’s winner, the words: “Continually dedicated to the memory of Laree Farrell-Lincoln, CCHS Class of 2010,” once again appear on the bottom right-hand portion of the billboard, with the designer’s name Skylar Betkowski on the left.
This is the fifth straight year Lamar Advertising has sponsored the CCHS billboard contest. The contest challenges high school students each spring to produce a billboard with an important social message that will connect with peers their age. It must carry a catchy message and the professional art work to back it up.
Contest participants work on their projects for several weeks in their Digital Photography class taught by Festin and the Digital Merchandising and Design course taught by Defazzio.
Lamar employees and clients pick the winner each year from the student submissions using a grading system, said Matthew Duddy, Lamar Vice President/General Manager.
“It’s a very democratic process,” Duddy said. “We lay all of the designs on a table in our office and have our clients and staff grade them, giving two points for first place and one point for second place. The most points wins.”
What’s the key to a winning billboard design?
“They are very challenging for an artist to create,” Duddy said. “It’s not like traditional art such as a painting where you are constantly staring at it. Rather, (a billboard design) has to be clean, clear and a fast view that will resonate with motorists as they pass by.”
Lamar traditionally pays the cost of producing the billboard artwork and donates the space for at least four weeks. A four-week billboard rental at that busy traffic location retails for more than $6,000. After the four weeks, the poster will be used at other Lamar billboard locations throughout the year as space opens up.
Colonie High’s first three billboard campaigns dating back to 2012 focused on traditional messages like no texting and no drinking while driving. Heroin abuse was the focus of the last two years, and was more poignant because heroin affected someone many Colonie families knew well.
The Colonie campaign has become so popular it is now being duplicated in other states. Defazzio and Festin were both surprised when they were contacted earlier this year by a newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania, who was doing a story about an anti-heroin billboard campaign in York. Just like South Colonie, the York County Heroin Task Force’s latest endeavor was offering high school students across their county the chance to design billboards that would send a message about the heroin epidemic. The story featured photos of last year’s South Colonie winner.
“The message is definitely spreading,” Duddy said, “and it all started right here.”
— John Noetzel