Stephanie Marquesano has made it her mission to raise awareness about co-occurring disorders, which are the combination of one or more mental health challenges and substance misuse/addiction, in both prevention and treatment.

Ms. Marquesano’s activism was a response to the tragic loss of her 19-year-old son, Harris Blake, to an accidental opioid overdose in October 2013. Harris was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at three years old, and with ADHD in middle school. Although he had seen psychologists and psychiatrists throughout his life, Harris self-medicated with marijuana and later with prescription medication including opioids. Harris had participated in rehabilitation programs more than once, but each had failed to address the underlying mental health disorders that in large part drove each relapse.

Ms. Marquesano launched the harris project the day of her son’s funeral to try to help other Westchester families avoid the loss she has suffered.

Since then, the harris project has introduced its innovative Co-Occurring Disorders Awareness (CODA) prevention programming to all Westchester public high schools. Through outreach to students, her goal is to help young people better understand how to help each other and themselves and link to resources as early as possible. CODA is led by peers who share the risks of experimentation on the developing brain, discuss how and why teens may turn to substances, including self-medication for anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges, and discuss alternative strategies. Students also share information about the risks of taking opioids prescribed for pain relief due to sports injuries or wisdom teeth removal. Through her efforts, CODA Weeks have been celebrated from April 1-15 since 2017.

At the County’s youth summit in October 2017, 39 Westchester public high schools, 400 students and 60 volunteers participated, where they heard CODA messaging, gained an understanding of multiple paths to substance misuse and addiction, and created plans of action to take back to their school communities. Ms. Marquesano partnered with Michael Orth, Commissioner of the County’s Department of Community Mental Health, to develop the curriculum for the event. Afterwards, all 49 Westchester public high schools received “celebration boxes” created and prepared by the harris project for CODA Weeks 2018. Included in the “celebration boxes” were daily announcements, activities, and all supporting materials.

The Second Annual Youth Summit – CODA Youth As Voices of Change was held on March 19, 2019, where students participated in seven interactive workshops. To prepare for CODA Weeks 2019, attendees were also provided with updated celebration boxes, and the opportunity to explore and practice with the tools and activities included. They were also introduced to the new CODA 2-star logo and awareness campaign designed to bring an understanding of co-occurring disorders to an even larger audience. Each year the harris project partners with a high school to officially celebrate CODA Week. Following successful events at Lakeland High School (2017) and New Rochelle High School (2018), this year White Plains High School is the host site for the 2019 CODA Week celebration.

The harris project also promotes an integrated and comprehensive treatment approach to provide the best opportunity to achieve and sustain recovery. Ms. Marquesano and the harris project works with treatment providers to create a model of service delivery where co-occurring disorders are viewed as the expectation, not the exception. She has worked with internationally renowned systems change expert Dr. Ken Minkoff of ZiaPartners, Inc. Most recently, she collaborated with Commissioner Orth and RPC Mid-Hudson Coordinator Marcie Colon on an abstract, “From Prevention to Integrated Treatment, Building a System of Care to Address Co-Occurring Disorders, Improving Outcomes and Saving Lives” that was selected for presentation on May 3 at the New York State Public Health Administrators Annual Conference as a hot topic.

“She has led efforts in the County and the Mid-Hudson Region to transform the system of care,” County Legislator MaryJane Shimsky wrote when nominating her for this award. “Stephanie’s impact has been far-reaching and laudable.” She “has key partners in the health care, mental health and substance misuse sectors which, through the implementation of collaborative program/performance improvement strategies; use of evidence-based practices; and by reliance on the expertise of our providers to consult and “push-in” supportive services; are working diligently to achieve these goals.”

Get more information about the harris project.

male youth2018 J.R. Tesone Youth Public Health Service Award Winner: Jack Waxman
As a summer intern in Senator Charles Schumer’s office in 2017, Jack Waxman decided to research e-cigarettes and vaping for his intern policy paper.

At Scarsdale High School, Jack had noticed the popularity of vaping among his peers. Through his research, Jack learned about the health risks these products pose. He was alarmed to learn that after declining for decades, nicotine use was on the rise among teenagers. Jack recognized that although e-cigarettes had originally been presented as a smoking cessation tool, by adding cotton candy, tutti frutti or mango flavor to nicotine, marketers were appealing to the youth market. Jack identified a loophole in the law that did not restrict the sale of flavored nicotine products because they did not meet the definition of a tobacco product.

After the internship, Jack made it his mission to combat what he believed was an intentional marketing campaign by corporations to increase profits at the expense of teen health. He turned to James Genova, Executive Director of the Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service, for guidance and assistance. With guidance from the Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service, the lead agency of the Scarsdale Task Force, and later joined by Judy Mezey of Student Assistance Services, Jack set out to advocate for change.

Jack wrote to, met with, and developed relationships with prevention organizations across the County and the State seeking support for state legislation to prohibit the sale of flavored e-liquids, and he met with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Tobacco 21 legislation, which bans the sale of tobacco and e-cigarette products to anyone under age 21, was approved by the County Board of Legislators and signed into law by County Executive George Latimer in June 2018. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering similar restrictions statewide.

Jack also brought his concerns to national policy makers. During a private meeting, Jack urged FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to consider the issue of flavored nicotine products at the federal level. Gottlieb, who announced his plans to resign last month, has been credited with leading the FDA’s charge against teen vaping.

Jack created “Juulers Against Juul”, an educational video on the powerful pull of these products. In May 2018, he appeared on Good Morning America, which provided a national platform for his advocacy.

As a freshman this year at Cornell University, Jack, 18, was awarded a university grant to develop an educational board game to teach middle school students about the dangers of vaping.