As motorists drive north on Rt. 219 from Hillsboro toward Marlinton, there is a turn in Cook Town where a bright new message harkens to passersby from the barn owned by Jack Burks.
That message is an anti-tobacco message, brought to life through the collaboration of Pocahontas County Prevention Coalition, Community Connections, Com- munity Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and the Center for Disease Control.
The message was painted earlier this fall by The Barn Artist Scott Hagan. Last Thursday, representatives from the entities involved, as well as students who are members of the SADD and RAZE chapters at Pocahontas County High School, Green Bank Elementary-Middle School and Marlinton Middle School attended a dedication of the project.
Community Connections executive director Greg Puckett explained that he was inspired by the infamous Mail Pouch barns to spread awareness through messages on barns.
“When I started back in 2001, I wanted to do different things in working on anti-tobacco stuff,” Puckett said. “In about 2006 to 2007, I started going to our local Division of Tobacco Prevention and said, ‘hey, we need to do something different. These Mail Pouch barns have been all over.’ I said, ‘I do love the history of them, but they really promote positive tobacco messages.’ I said, ‘we need to do an anti-tobacco message to let people know that they can quit and get help if they want to get away from tobacco products.’”
Puckett continued to share his idea with different organizations and pushing it with the Division of Tobacco Prevention until he got the green light. The first barn in the project was painted in Monroe County. Not only was it the first in West Virginia, but the first in the United States.
Eventually, barns with slogans like “Save Face, Stop Spit Tobacco,” and “Quit Smoking, Treat Yourself to Health” were popping up all over West Virginia in counties including Mercer, Wyo-ming, Jackson, Wirt and Randolph.
Along with anti-tobacco – smokeless and cigarettes – campaigns, there are several barns which focus on Breast Cancer Awareness and are painted bright pink.
Puckett said he first got the idea about the pink barns when he was talking with former Division of Tobacco Prevention director Bruce Adkins about a green barn which was painted in Jackson County.
“I said, ‘it was a good barn, but I really didn’t care for the green,’” Puckett recalled. “Bruce Adkins, who was the director at the time said, ‘you know what, I wouldn’t care if it was pink if it got the message out to West Virginians to stop using tobacco.’”
After the first pink barn was painted, Puckett got in touch with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and more pink barns were painted.
The barn at Cook Town – the purpose of Thursday’s event – is a special barn because it is the second in a series of CDC Tips barns, which feature a quote from a former tobacco user.
The quote on this barn – “Those things you say will never happen to you? They happen” – is from Mark Arsenault, of Sacramento, California, who came to the dedication.
Arsenault said he began smoking at the age of 19. A year later, he joined the Air Force where it seemed tobacco use was encouraged.
“I started about a year before and when I went in, smoking was not just accepted, but I think indirectly, inadvertently, encouraged in the military,” he said. “Back then, we’d be in formation during basic training and we’d stop for some reason – the drill instructor had to go do something – and we’d have to stand there at attention. The exception being if you were a smoker, you could fall out of formation and go out to the side and smoke. I knew some people in basic training that actually started smoking so they could get out of formation. That may sound kind of crazy, but that’s just the way it was.”
Because smoking cigarettes made it easier to detect where a soldier was hiding – through smelling the smoke or seeing the lighter flick – Arsenault said he also chewed tobacco and went back and forth between smokeless tobacco and cigarettes until age 42.
“I tried quitting a number of times,” he said. “I went back and forth from smokeless and cigarettes until I was forty-two years old. I started having some symptoms and long story short, I found out I had colorectal cancer. As a result, I had a good portion – about a foot and a half – of my large intestine removed. I went through radiation therapy. I went through chemotherapy, twice. I had surgery twice and it was a lot of work involved.”
Now, eight years later, Arsenault is cancer free and likes to share his story to help others learn from his life and either stop tobacco use or never start in the first place.
“The point I want to make is that I never expected it to happen,” Arsenault said of his diagnosis. “I knew it was a possibility, but it just didn’t seem real. I want to take this back to the beginning when I started smoking when I was nineteen. The reason I started was because me and my friends thought it looked cool. It sounds like a cliché, and it sounds like a pretty dumb reason – and it is – but that’s why we started.”
Arsenault spoke directly to the students in attendance and told them how important their role is as anti-tobacco ambassadors.
“The message that a lot of you folks are getting out about not smoking, by not using smokeless tobacco – it’s an amazing thing that you’re doing because you’re saving lives,” he said. “There are a lot of people who start for reasons they can’t even explain, but once you start, it hooks you. It’s an addiction. It’s like any other drug. You can get addicted to it, and I was for a long time.”
In closing, Arsenault referred to his quote, saying it is important to remember that tobacco can and will harm you.
“Those things that you think will never happen to you, they happen,” he said. “So keep it in mind. Spread the message. I want to send my appreciation to everybody involved in selecting my message to go on the barn. I think it’s phenomenal, and I really pray that this message reaches a lot of people and that we save lives.”
CADCA Chairman and CEO General Arthur Dean also spoke about the importance of the tobacco prevention in all forms.
“Tobacco today continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in America,” Dean said. “It’s hard to even imagine that some 480,000 people lose their lives every year in the United States as a result of tobacco. West Virginia is one of the states that is challenged with this issue. Your use of tobacco far outpaced that of the rest of the states in the U.S. The use here is around thirty percent. Nationally, it’s around eighteen percent, so we do have a challenge, and we’re working very hard to fix that.”
Adding to what Arsenault said about his experience with colorectal cancer, Dean said it is important to remember that tobacco doesn’t just cause lung cancer – it is the leading cause in many cancers and diseases.
“Tobacco use has always been a problem – continues to be a problem – but most people don’t understand that that disease that Mark had to deal with – colorectal cancer – is also associated with tobacco. Most people just think it’s only lung cancer. It’s not. Many forms of cancer can be brought on as the result of tobacco use, and it is a link to many, many other kinds of problems, as well.”
Addressing the students, Dean said he was pleased to see so many young people involved in spreading awareness and helping to prevent the use of tobacco in Pocahontas County.
“I could not be more proud of you young people because you are not tomorrow’s leaders,” he said. “You are today’s leaders. You are, in fact, the messages that are going to be carried throughout your community and – as you grow and travel to other communities – as well. Let’s hope and pray that none of us gets caught up in the vice of tobacco use.”
Jordan Maynor, a member of Congressman Evan Jenkins’ staff, read a letter from Jenkins commemorating the barn dedication.
To properly dedicate the barn, Puckett invited everyone in attendance to sign a wall inside the barn – marking the historic event.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at email@example.com