Growing up in rural Wayne County, Kacey Philbrick never saw herself as a future activist. She was just a doting daughter who tried to get her dad to kick the habit.
“It was a childhood goal of mine to get him to stop smoking,” Kacey recalls. “In school, we were taught that smoking is wrong, so I would relay that information to my father. He would just shrug it off.
“As a kid, you think your parents are invincible,” she says. “He passed away the day after my nineteenth birthday.”
Ron Philbrick was just 53.
And Kacey was just devastated.
“He was an awesome dad,” she says of her father, a mason who enjoyed working with his hands.
Kacey has turned her grief into inspiration. After working with the American Lung Association last year, she researched anti-smoking volunteer opportunities online and discovered the Truth Initiative.
The non-profit organization promotes tobacco-free lives in part by supporting and publicizing anti-smoking projects created by teenagers and young adults. It was exactly what she was looking for.
Kacey was one of some 10,000 applicants for 10 openings. In December, the field was narrowed to 1,500, then, earlier this year, the final selections were made. Kacey was among them.
She says she didn’t hold back during her interviews about her personal reasons for wanting to join the Truth Initiative.
“I didn’t want to have a powerful story,” she says, “but I was given one, so I used it.”
On the Front Lines
As one of just 12 Class of 2019 truth ambassadors (including two returning members), Kacey is now on the front lines in the fight to reduce smoking among her peer group.
She and her fellow ambassadors (who represent 11 different states including Florida, Texas, and Nebraska) spent several days at the Truth Initiative’s Washington, D.C., headquarters in April, learning about smoking laws and activism.
“There were presentations about different smoking policies across America,” Kacey says. “What are the policies in different states? What ages is it legal to buy tobacco and nicotine products in different states?”
She says the organization doesn’t tell its ambassadors how to advocate.
“They do a lot of educating,” says Kacey, who is also a member of Keuka College’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Committee. “They’re not telling you what to do, but they’re giving you the information to make that conclusion yourself. … We’re the ones students and other young people want to hear from.”
They’ll be hearing plenty.
Kacey and her fellow ambassadors have split into three groups, each of which will hold a regional anti-smoking summit this summer for high school students. Kacey and her teammates will host their event in Cincinnati.
Later this summer, the ambassadors plan to visit Raleigh, N.C., the heart of tobacco-growing country. Their plans? “Show up and make our presence known,” says Kacey.
She also intends to create a mural on the Keuka College campus to promote a smoke-free lifestyle – one that targets not only cigarettes but popular devices used for vaping.
“As JUULs and vapes are becoming more popular, more information is needed,” Kacey says. “We don’t really even know what’s in them.”
Her anti-smoking activism comes as no surprise to those who know her.
“You can really see how she lights up when she discusses promoting anti-tobacco education here on campus,” says Jared Stammer, the College’s assistant director of student conduct & community standards.
Determined to Succeed
An education major, Kacey says her recent experiences are shaping how she thinks not only about issues surrounding smoking but about herself and her future.
“Education comes in so many different forms,” she says. “I can still be a teacher. I just may not be a teacher of children. I may be a teacher of older adolescents.”
Just 15 months after her father’s passing, Kacey says she has used her grief to fuel her anti-smoking efforts – and surprised herself in the process.
“What I’ve learned is that I really am a leader,” she says. “I found strength in myself that I didn’t know I had.”
And as she uses that strength to advocate for smoke-free lifestyles, the memory of her father is never far from her thoughts.
“I did fail in getting my father to stop smoking,” she says with passion in her voice. “But I will never fail again and that’s what’s really pushing me. There’s another little girl out there whose father smokes and that’s why – excuse my language – I’ll be damned if I fail again.”