An experience shortly after college led Lawrence High School student assistance counselor Ann DeGennaro to make the move from art therapy to counseling. She hasn’t looked back since.
“I was working at a psychiatric hospital, and one night there was a beautiful young girl admitted,” she said. “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.”
The was 30 years ago, but DeGennaro carries the experience with her. It continues to inform her work as a counselor, which was honored last month with the Excellence in Prevention award by the Prevention Coalition of Mercer County for her extensive youth counseling work in substance abuse reduction.
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 diverse group, ranging from psychiatric patients, to prisoners and those suffering mental illnesses.
After her experience with the young patient, DeGennaro, who graduated from The College of New Jersey with a degree in art therapy, decided to pursue a master’s degree and work with children and teens in substance abuse prevention.
“I never want to see that happen again,” she said.
DeGennaro went back to TCNJ and earned her master’s in counseling in 1988. She took her first job 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 said.
She started at Montgomery High School, and began her work 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,” she said. “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.”
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,” she said. “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.”
At Lawrence, DeGennaro channels her goals and missions through various programs. A majority of her day is one-on-ones with students, working on issues of family dynamics, substance abuse and other issues. She also organizes student groups, such as a self-esteem group and an LGBTQ group.
She conducts faculty workshops called ‘A Day in the Life of Your Student’ to help teachers make the school a “safe space” and help them understand the challenges and difficulties students may face.
DeGennaro, along with assistant principal Alyson Fischer, helps facilitate the CORE team, a group of administrators, nurses and faculty members that organize programs to help create awareness for issues of substance abuse and, more recently, mental health issues.
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.
DeGennaro also runs a peer education program called Change In Action, 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,” she said.
Fischer says CIA is now one of the school’s largest clubs. “It’s all student-directed, and they come up with projects and concepts to influence the school in a positive way,” she said. These ideas range 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 knack for encouraging students to come out of their shell and try something new,” Fischer said.
One of the main challenges DeGennaro and other counselors face in their work is educating students about substance use and abuse. DeGennaro says that while the adult brain is fully developed and can make better decisions, adolescent brains are still developing and can be susceptible to significant damage from using these substances.
In recent times, school staff are increasingly focused on potential dangers of electronic cigarettes. While evidence shows that a majority of youth at Lawrence do not use e-cigarettes, use of the devices is on the rise nationalwide.
Last year, DeGennaro conducted a social norms survey that was filled out by close to 800 of the 1,200 students at Lawrence High. According to the results 80 percent 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 at the football field, 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 recent student suicides in Mercer County, DeGennaro has also made it her goal 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.”
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,” she said. “It’s the biggest challenge in substance abuse because kids just don’t get it, and it’s 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.
“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, nonjudgemental approach.
As senior Gabby Toatley 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,” she said. “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.
“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.”
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,” she said. “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. Each chapter will focus on the life of a different student as they make their way through the school day and overcome their own obstacles or seek help.
“My goal is for teenagers to read it, or an adult, to make it a story that people are going to want to read,” she said. “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 innovating and 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 after school 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,” Fischer said. “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.”