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The Real Red Ribbon Week Story

October 23-31 is Red Ribbon Week, a time for schools to check the box that says they do drug prevention with their students. That means that our prevention team is slammed—doing multiple presentations every day, often all day long. 

What exactly is Red Ribbon Week? Several years ago, when I posed that question to my young granddaughter, she was extremely excited to tell me it was the time when all the kids got to wear crazy socks and hats to school. When I asked her why they did that she rolled her eyes and said, “Because it’s fun, Nana.” When I pressed for more details, she told me that this was also a special time for teachers to talk about “how bad drugs are.” 

At that time, I was already working in the prevention field, and regularly collaborating with colleagues at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). I knew the tragic story behind Red Ribbon Week and was very disappointed that my granddaughter wasn’t learning the real reason for the campaign. So one day, with her mother’s permission, I took her out of school for a few hours and we took a field trip to DEA’s Houston offices.

If you don’t know the story, Red Ribbon Week began after drug traffickers in Mexico City kidnapped, tortured and murdered DEA agent Kiki Camarena, who was working undercover and was close to bringing down some heavy-duty drug traffickers. Shortly after his death, Congressman Duncan Hunter and high school friend Henry Lozano launched Camarena Clubs in Kiki's hometown of Calexico, CA. Hundreds of club members wore red ribbons and pledged to lead drug-free lives to honor the sacrifices made by Camarena and others on behalf of all Americans.

Red Ribbon Week eventually gained momentum throughout California and later the United States. In 1985, club members presented the "Camarena Club Proclamation" to then First Lady Nancy Reagan, bringing the program national attention. Later that summer, parent groups began promoting the wearing of red ribbons nationwide during late October. The campaign was then formalized in 1988 by National Family Partnership, with President and Mrs. Reagan serving as honorary chairpersons. Today, the eight-day celebration has become the annual catalyst to show intolerance for drugs in our schools, work places, and communities.

Our nation’s current opioid crisis—soon to be declared a national emergency by President Trump—is a sad indication that far too many people and families have lost their way when it comes to painkillers and heroin. There has never been a more critical time to galvanize people around drug prevention messages. The work of DPR’s prevention educators in schools is based on research and is proven to work. At the same time, our coalition coordinators are working hard in communities to hone prevention messages that students will hear at home as well.

Red Ribbon Week is a great way for communities to unite and take a visible stand against drugs. It is an incredibly effective awareness campaign that reaches millions of people and that is most definitely a good thing. But there are still too many folks, kids included, who don’t know the “why” behind the fun and games. I think they need to know about Kiki.

Now YOU know the “rest of the story.” We hope you’ll join us in creating a lasting and meaningful impact on young people’s lives with the story that began Red Ribbon Week.