Counselor Ann DeGennaro
Lawrence High School Student Assistance Counselor Ann DeGennaro is being honored with the ‘Excellence in Prevention’ award by the Prevention Coalition of Mercer County for her extensive youth counseling work in substance abuse reduction, and will be recognized by the Annual Awards Breakfast in June.
The Prevention Coalition of Mercer County, an initiative of the Mercer Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, consists of fellow counselors, treatment providers, and others who are dedicated to reducing substance abuse across Mercer County. Members of the Coalition nominate those doing exceptional work in substance abuse reduction, and DeGennaro was chosen for the award.
DeGennaro’s has experience counseling a diversity of groups, ranging from psychiatric patients, to prisoners and those suffering mental illnesses.
Her inspiration to enter counseling came in an experience shortly after college, where she received a bachelor’s degree in art therapy from The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). “I was working at a psychiatric hospital, and one night there was a beautiful young girl admitted. She had a full scholarship for college, and the night of her graduation, she smoked marijuana for the first time. Perhaps the marijuana was laced, or it induced psychosis, but she was tearing off her own skin, and it was absolutely shocking for me,” DeGennaro said.
“This experience motivated me to get a master’s degree and focus on working with kids in substance abuse prevention, because I never want to see that happen again,” she added.
After receiving her master’s degree in counseling in 1988, also from TCNJ, DeGennaro took her first role in Lakewood, before moving back to TCNJ as the Alcohol and Drug Education Coordinator, where she focused on substance abuse reduction outreach and programming. During her 18 years at TCNJ, she expanded to a broader portfolio as the Wellness Director.
After her tenure at TCNJ ended, DeGennaro transitioned to working with high school age youth. “Through my work, I was seeing increasingly more kids having a difficult time establishing coping skills.” She started at Montgomery High School, and began her work in motivational speaking on healthy decision making. DeGennaro then worked at Livingston High School, before finally moving to Lawrence High School.
“I’ve been working here for five years now, and I really love what I do. I work predominantly with high risk youth with difficult backgrounds, those battling substance abuse. However, I’ve started to see students with all types of issues, ranging from dating relationships to mental health issues,” she said.
DeGennaro particularly enjoys working in Lawrence because of the diversity of students. “My prior schools had a different dynamic, with students that had a bit more privilege. But at Lawrence, we have kids bordering Princeton and bordering Trenton, and they all get along. It’s a wonderful feeling to be in an environment where I feel like I can have an impact, because the kids are so embracing of diversity,” she said.
At Lawrence, DeGennaro channels her goals and missions through various programs. “A majority of my day is one-on-ones with students, working on issues of family dynamics and substance abuse, amongst others. I also organize different groups, such as a self-esteem group and an LGBTQ group. I conduct faculty workshops called ‘A Day in the Life of Your Student’ to provide our teachers with skillsets to work with students and understand the challenges and difficulties they may face, in order to make our school a safe space.”
Along with Assistant Principal Alyson Fischer, DeGennaro helps facilitate the CORE team, a group of administration, nurses and faculty members that organize programs to help create awareness for issues of substance abuse and, more recently, mental health issues. “In the CORE team, we look at behaviors of kids that may be experiencing substance abuse issues or emotional concerns. Teachers will refer students that may be showing these behaviors, and then Ann would meet with them to see if there are underlying causes. As a team, we develop programs to help support these students and their families,” Fischer said.
“We’re just recently rolling out a program where 36 at-risk students are being paired with teacher mentors, since various types of research show that students fare better academically and socially if they have a trusted adult in the building they can go to with any problems,” DeGennaro added. On the day the program was introduced, the teacher-mentors all wore shirts that said ‘Need Help?,’ in order to show students the various adult resources they have.
Furthermore, DeGennaro runs a peer education program called Change In Action (CIA), where student allies educate community members about teen dating violence, stress, depression, and vaping, amongst other issues. “They’re a great group, since they go out there and challenge their peers to think differently.”
As Fischer proudly noted, “CIA is now one of our largest clubs. It’s all student-directed, and they come up with projects and concepts to influence the school in a positive way, ranging from fundraisers for environmental groups to voter registration drives and drug and alcohol awareness. A lot of these students may not be necessarily involved in other clubs, but (DeGennaro) really has a knock for encouraging students to come out of their shell and try something new.”
One of the main challenges DeGennaro and other counselors face in their work is defeating the stigma behind using substances, and more recently, electronic cigarettes. “Like most schools in the country, we are battling the vaping issue.”
DeGennaro states that, while the adult brain is fully developed and can make better decisions, adolescent brains are still developing and can be suscept to significant damage from using these substances. While evidence shows that a majority of youth at Lawrence do not use e-cigarettes, the trend is rising and is supported by social stigma.
“Last year, I conducted a social norms survey, which was filled out by close to 800 students, out of the 1200 at Lawrence High School. According to the survey, 80% of students had never used electronic cigarettes. However, I can’t be sure the number is the same today,” DeGennaro said.
“Most of our kids are making good choices, but the population on the fence is worrying. It’s very challenging with high school kids, because they often talk about using substances, while kids enjoying natural highs don’t go around talking about it.” Because of this, DeGennaro is focusing on developing a social norm supporting natural highs instead.
A key event towards this goal is the ‘Haunted High Community Fest,’ which has been held for the past four years. Previously, the event used to be held indoors, but DeGennaro pitched the idea of hosting the event outdoors, followed by a carnival in the school stadium, and focusing on building a social norm of enjoying natural highs. Six student organizations helped organize the event, and the carnival included 16 games, each with a prize that included a social norm message. Overall, with over 100 student volunteers, the event raised more than $4,000.
In light of the recent students suicides in Mercer County, DeGennaro has made it her “goal is to establish an environment where students can feel safe and comfortable to talk to anyone in the building, especially adults. Therefore, our teachers actually manned the carnival booths that night. We do this so that students can see that they don’t need to go out on weekends and use substances to change my mindset, that they can actually have a good time doing something fun and get a natural high.”
In DeGennaro’s line of work, she has faced various difficulties in working with students and parents. “The first big challenge for me is helping students find the moment where they understand that their behavior is not working for them. It’s the biggest challenge in substance abuse because kids just don’t get it, and its quite frustrating. I try to get them to see it differently. I do a lot of harm reduction, to get them to understand and see the danger,” she said.
“My parents that I work with are traditionally really great, and have been pretty open to working with me. However, the most frustrating part is that parents don’t participate in our programs on the issue. They just don’t want to hear about it, until something happens.”
To help develop these relationships, DeGennaro always maintains an open approach. “I don’t judge, and I think that’s why students really come and talk to me. I’m not judgemental, and I speak on their level. I think they appreciate that I speak from my heart, and I speak real, and I use my professional background to connect with them, to get them to understand that I get it, and life can be difficult, even more so for parents.”
As senior Gabby Toatley, 18, noted, DeGennaro’s demeanor has helped students open up to her. “If I have anything going on, family or friendship issues, she’s always opened her door to me, and talks about everything that happens with no judgment. If I don’t want to talk about it, she’ll just offer her support and be there for me, whereas other people would try to get it out of me. A lot of my friends are closed off as well, but they’re a lot more open in talking with her. If another adult isn’t there for them, they can go to her,” Toatley said.
“I think she’s a great woman, she’s an inspiration to me and I really look up to her. In my life I don’t have a lot of adults who’ve really supported or pushed me to do well in or outside school, but she’s been like a mother figure and really supported me,” she added.
Despite the difficulties in her role, DeGennaro remains inspired by the students she has worked with in the past. “Seeing the kids that do change, maturing and making significant improvements, is truly inspirational. It’s wonderful to see them reach that ‘aha’ moment, and then be able to go to college or work a trade. That’s always the most rewarding thing, and that’s why I do what I do.”
To help share the power of these stories, DeGennaro is working on a book for students and parents. “I want each chapter to focus on the life of a different student, walking through the hallways of school. There will be some humor and comic relief, with real storylines, but the end of each chapter will be how the particular individual overcame that obstacle, or seeked the help that they need. My goal is for teenagers to read it, or an adult, to make it a story that people are going to want to read. Through the story, there are so many wonderful messages coming through. If they have hope, they have opportunity, they can succeed.”
As Fischer noted, DeGennaro’s attitude of continuously innovativing and better supporting students has made a big difference in the LHS community. For students suspended for drug or alcohol use, instead of just sending them home, DeGennaro helped create a program where these students can receive both education and counseling on drug and alcohol use during the school day. For students caught with vapes or other e-cigarette devices, instead of just going to detention, DeGennaro works with these students afterschool to teach them about the concerns with vaping.
“She’s one of the most passionate people you’ll ever meet, and she just radiates that passion for helping students. She goes above and beyond to find creative and innovative ways to prevent and educate students from having to go down the route of needing substances. She’s been extremely proactive on the local and state level, advocating for funding for kids, and for prevention,” Fischer said.
Ultimately, as DeGennaro summed up, “knowledge is power. If you get educated about these substances, you will be better prepared to have the necessary conversations and make better decisions.”