Coalitions in Action: Youth Ambassadors Advocate for Change in Tobacco Use in City’s Public Park

It all began in the fall of 2014 when more than a dozen youth ambassadors from the Power of Putnam Coalition in Cookeville, Tennessee, decided to see what they could do to create smoke-free zones in the city’s 10 public parks.

Cookeville is located in the center of the state, in a rural area 100 miles from Knoxville and 80 from Nashville. It is the home to Tennessee Technological University, and is an epicenter for manufacturing, retail and the arts. With its parks, lakes, low hills and ridges Cookeville is a magnet for outdoor activities.  That’s why keeping the parks clean and smoke-free is important to the Coalition and the community.

The Power of Putnam’s youth ambassadors began their quest for change by requesting an appointment with members of Cookeville’s City Council, preparing a well-thought-out presentation on the dangers of secondhand smoke and outlining their vision to discourage smoking and littering in the parks. Their pièce de résistance was the cigarette butts they had collected from Cane Creek Park, putting the remnants into dozens of Ziploc bags and taking them to the Council session.

“The youth were shocked by how many cigarette butts they had picked up,” explains Jennifer Matthews, Assistant Director of the Power of Putnam. “It’s something you don’t really notice unless you’re specifically looking for it.”

The public officials were impressed, particularly Councilmember Dr. Charles Womack, a retired physician and outdoor enthusiast. Unfortunately, the youth ambassadors were told that State Law preempted local restrictions preventing smoking on public properties, and therefore it was impossible for the city to make the parks smoke-free zones. But Councilman Womack suggested that the law did not prohibit signage discouraging smoking, and encouraged them to meet with the Cookeville Leisure Services Director, Rick Woods, who was in charge of the parks. Woods liked the idea, but insisted that the signage had to be attractive, family-friendly, engaging and park-related.

The following year’s youth ambassadors picked up where the first group had left off and held a poster contest. Two designs were selected, both of which underscore the impact of smoking on young people:

  • One, by Samantha Clark, features a boy and girl playing soccer with the words, “We copy what we see. Please keep our park smoke free!”
  • The other, by Matthew Randolph, shows a child on a swing with the taglines, “Be smart! Young lungs at play! Don’t smoke in our park!”

“The City of Cookeville loved them and partnered in paying for the signs,” says Bill Gibson, Director of Power of Putnam. “Sixty signs are currently going up in all 10 parks, and our youth ambassadors are making presentations at the State level about what they have accomplished.”

 “We are so proud to see an idea turn into something real,” remarked Abigail Meadows, one of the youth ambassadors, now a college freshman and mentor. “We see how we can speak our minds and use our voices to affect change. You can always make a difference when you do the right thing.”