NEW YORK CITY, NY — Young people from more than 150 schools who have been isolated during the coronavirus pandemic — forced to embrace distance learning and see dreams for proms, senior days and other long-time traditions derailed —were able to come together last week during a virtual field trip for more than 1,000 New York City students.
The presentation, "Let's Talk About It," was hosted by the United Federation of Teachers and Road Recovery, a not-for-profit organization founded by Gene Bowen and Jack Bookbinder. Road Recovery focuses on helping young people "battle addiction and other adversities by harnessing the influence of entertainment industry professionals who have confronted similar crises and now wish to share their experience, knowledge, and resources," according to the group's mission statement.
The virtual field trip featured Daryl McDaniels of the groundbreaking hip hop group Run-DMC, who spoke passionately about his experience with alcoholism, fame, recovery and ways to manage stress and harness imagination to broaden horizons.
McDaniels, who was introduced by hip hop icon Doug E. Fresh, also debuted a song that he wrote with the young people from Road Recovery, who find new paths forward through music and mentorship.
The event, which was meant to unfold with kids present, evolved to a virtual platform due to the pandemic — and was, in the end, an opportunity to invite hundreds more students to listen, share peer support, and learn coping skills and empowerment strategies during the days of coronavirus when many teens are dealing with unprecedented stress, organizers said.
McDaniels spoke about his upbringing in Queens and his meteoric rise to fame with Run-DMC; his was the first hip hop group to go gold and platinum, star on MTV, travel the world on tour and make history.
And yet, he said: "I'm no different from anybody out there, especially from any little boy or little girl anywhere in the world. When people ask me, 'What is your greatest accomplishment?' it isn't the awards, it isn't the notoriety, it isn't the accolades and achievements — my greatest achievement is getting sober," he said. "Because that's the thing that got me over the hump, over the rainbow."
McDaniels spoke to the teens about his own childhood, about being a straight-A Catholic school student who loved old monster movies and 'The Brady Bunch'.
"As a kid in the late 70s, all I needed was my imagination," he said. "That's all I needed, my imagination and my comic books. I was the king of the geeks, the king of the nerds. Comic books let me experience everything I was learning about in school. Everything I learned about the universe in science class — Silver Surfer would take me there."
Technology textbooks came alive through Ironman and history lessons, through Captain America, McDaniels said.
After describing his journey to stardom, McDaniels spoke straight from the heart to the kids: "You are perfect, just the way you are. Your imagination is invincible and unstoppable."
Once you imagine something, he said, the next step is making the dream a reality.
But it wasn't easy, McDaniels said. His life changed, he said, when he had the "confidence and courage to go to therapy. Therapy is you, helping you."
He added: "I'm not here to tell all of you about how great I am. I'm here to shout from the highest mountain about how great all of you are." McDaniels urged the young people to take control of their power. "Don't be down if you failed. It's all just practice, preparing you for what's waiting for you. . . I'm not different from any one of you. I'm not greater than you or smarter, not even more talented. I'm just an example of what can happen when you allow yourself to be prepared, to be ready to remove guilt and shame, to be open for the change that is going to make your life better."
As more than 1,000 kids watched, McDaniels added: "It all comes back to the imagination. Imagine what you can do and then we are going to make sure it comes true."
The presentation also included representatives of Youth Voices Matter - NY, a statewide youth recovery movement that collaborates with Road Recovery, who provided resources and interactive social media platforms for youth outreach.
Also onboard was Stephen Dewey, a neuroscientist and research professor at the New York University School of Medicine, who spoke about the importance of mental health awareness during the pandemic.
Speakers included Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, and Robert Ferrell, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who now serves as vice president of Public Sector Strategy for St. Louis-based technology solutions provider World Wide Technology, which provided streaming services for the event.
“Our students need our support now more than ever,” said Mulgrew. “Using music as a way to deal with stress and heartbreak is a powerful message for our kids. We are proud to partner with such talented musicians and business leaders on this virtual field trip."
Road Recovery founders Gene Bowen and Jack Bookbinder shared their vision: "For 22 years, Road Recovery has been delivering peer support services to at-risk youth facing adversities. As we have seen firsthand, a thought leader like Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels can make a big difference as he shares his time, experience and treasure with students. This is a great demonstration of how Road Recovery's fundamental approach of uniting the worlds of behavioral health services with the music and entertainment industries, which has widespread applications in the existing education structure.”
Fighting stress and addiction
Dewey spoke about how stress can trigger addiction and lead to depression; he added that vaping and video games are also addictive, especially during the long days of the pandemic.
"We need to find ways to manage stress," he said, adding that different individuals find different ways to cope. "You need to develop an arsenal of tools," he said.
First off, he advised, "Talk about it. Engage your friends, talk to parents, relatives, teachers and counselors about your fears and anxiety. Ask them questions. If you know that others feel the same stress, you won't feel alone. We're all in this together."
Other ways to reduce stress include having pets, exercising, taking deep breaths, getting more sleep, turning off electronic devices an hour before bed, reducing caffeine and sugar intake, listening to music and engaging in hobbies, Dewey said.
Engaging in positive thinking and mindfulness meditation is also helpful, he said.
Road Recovery, a path to hope
Speaking with Patch about Road Recovery, which he and Bookbinder kicked off 22 years ago, Bowen said the organization started with his own coming to terms with drug and alcohol addiction.
He and Bookbinder met at NYU; their paths crossed through work with artists including Greg Allman and Jeff Buckley.
Bowen said he found support from Buckley while on tour, when the entire team of industry professionals came together to help him maintain his sobriety. That experience, he said, opened the door to conversations about the Road Recovery program in the entertainment world.
Bookbinder has had his own struggle with diabetes and said he, too, has found great emotional support from the sharing Road Recovery offers.
Road Recovery had another event last year, which included 800 students and a house band; a similar format was considered for this year's event — and then, the pandemic hit.
But the mission of Road Recovery, both agreed, is engagement and taking action, getting young people to tap into music and their innate creativity. "You an only sit on a couch for so long," Bowen said.
And so, despite coronavirus, the pair were able to harness technology and a platform through the support of World Wide Technology to provide the virtual presentation.
"It all comes down to the power of 'we,'" Bowen said.
Stepping into a virtual space with young people, Bowen said, meant a new range of dynamics. Some young people had no problem speaking online; others didn't want the cameras on because they didn't want anyone to know the poverty or emotional upheaval they endure daily.
Road Recovery, however, has Directors of Youth Clubhouses, supported by the NYS-Office of Addiction Services and Supports, who work with the kids to "engage them where they are at," they said. "Because of the nature of our work, we always start with, 'How are you doing?'"
Over time, trust is born, and then, the teens are able to explore their passion for music or other creative outlets with professionals who can open new horizons and the proverbial doors to futures they'd never before imagined.
The goal, both agreed, is to, quite literally, engage with teens on their own level, through the social media platforms through which they communicate.
What would have been just a normal dance shot by a teen for Insta can, with professional Road Recovery staff, be transformed into "this amazing piece to share, be proud of," Bowen said.
Some kids who might not want to go on camera can, instead, showcase their "creative works, which are so amazing," Bookbinder said. "Road Recovery can provide that platform on social media. It's a great way to give kids incentive."
And, Bowen said, meeting celebrity icons and producing their own music is a way to provide alternatives to substance abuse and other negative behaviors. Some Road Recovery students have shared stories of being able to avoid drugs and other dangerous situations by being provided with life-changing alternatives. "They'll tell their friends, 'If I get high with you, I can't go hang out with that artist, or be in the studio, recording this song,'" Bowen said.
And those opportunities, Bowen said, mean everything.
"We deal with a lot of kids whose view of what the world has to offer is extremely limited," Bowen said. "We are trying to open their eyes. If you have a passion for something and you learn about it, that may not end up being what you end up doing — but you may find what you were meant to do. A lot of this to fill in the blanks, that anything is possible."
Most fulfilling, said Bowen, has been making a difference. In his own life, he turned a "situation that nearly killed me" into a lifetime of helping others.
"Jack and I got into the music business being driven by passion and art. To have a career in our industry, surrounded by amazing people that want to help our greatest asset, our kids, that is everything. To be able to use the power of the industry and turn it to use for good, it's a full life, it's an amazing life," Bowen said.
But still, he added, Road Recovery needs help. A not-for-profit, the group survives on donations, especially critical during such difficult economic times.
"We don't want to give up on these kids, especially now," Bowen said.
To learn more or donate, click here.
The virtual presentation was made possible through the efforts of Road Recovery, World Wide Technology, UFT and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NYS-Office of Addiction Services and Supports, as well as the UFT's Member Assistance Program, New York City's Department of Education Substance Abuse Prevention and Intervention Specialists program, and Seafield Center, Inc., a drug and alcohol treatment center founded on Long Island.