Coffin, 2-26-2018

Guest Column: I choose #NeverAgain student activists for Public Health Hero Awards

Because I’ve served on a committee or two for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, I received an email on Feb. 20 inviting me to nominate someone for the Public Health Hero Award 2018. The award is part of National Public Health Week (April 2-8).

No sooner had I decided whom to nominate than I saw a note on the nomination form: “Nominator will decide whether to inform nominee or maintain a surprise until day of event.”

Since I’m not good at keeping surprises at the best of times, I’ve decided to tell the whole world whom I’m nominating: It’s the #NeverAgain student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. I’m nominating them collectively.

The nomination form asks: “What is a Public Health Hero?” The answer provided on that same form says: “It is someone who best personifies the spirit of public health through a commitment to improving the lives of the people we serve, and contributes to building a healthier community.”

The foregoing definition seems custom-made for my collective nominee. Not only do these young #NeverAgain activists seek a physically safer community, they also seek a community where fear of such simple things as going to school will be reduced, and where there’s less likelihood that students and teachers and parents and entire communities will have to wrestle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The official definition of a Public Health Hero wasn’t the only criteria I used in my choice of whom to nominate. The nomination form also says the nominees should demonstrate the following:

• Thorough knowledge and experience in their field.

• Leadership skills. 

• Compassion and sensitivity.

• Participation in activities that serve to improve the community.

#NeverAgain student activists seem to fit these criteria, too.

If anyone has “thorough knowledge” and field-tested “experience” concerning the devastating potential of weapons that are in the wrong hands, they do.

In fact, they’ve found the experience so disruptive to their psyches and so totally life-changing that they’re refusing to rest until they’ve exhausted every means at their disposal to change the equation that has made such tragedies all too common in this great nation.

And leadership skills? Who would have ever thought a group of high-school students would so decisively step into the void left by frightened, impotent lawmakers who don’t dare upset the donors whose dollars are their prime lifeline to political existence.

Again, I ask, leadership? When was the last time we saw such leadership in the world of elected adults? These youth are exhibiting a depth of conviction that led earlier generations to march boldly into the cannon’s mouth.

This group — like that underestimated rag-tag band of patriots nearly two and a half centuries ago — want to make it crystal-clear to those who think they’re in charge that the status quo is no longer viable and will no longer be tolerated.

And what about compassion and sensitivity? I’d label what these students are doing as the epitome of compassion. They’ve experienced the horror — and they don’t want anyone to ever experience that horror again. This isn’t a passive compassion that they’re personifying; it’s the outgrowth of a full-blown passion for the justice of a cause.

And they’re not just personifying sensitivity toward those whose lives have been altered or are in danger of being altered; they’re exhibiting a level of common sense in an environment where common sense is a rare commodity. They’re merging common sense with their sensitivity.

To qualify as Public Health Heroes, nominees need to engage in “activities that serve to improve the community.” High marks once again. Not only are these youth seeking to improve their community and communities throughout Florida; their sights are set on the improvement of communities throughout the nation.

Much as I’d like to see these highly deserving youth win the Public Health Hero Award 2018, what I really want is for them to succeed in their cause.

And that’s where you and I actually have a vote.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.