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A mentor who dealt with drug abuse is using filmmaking to help teens on the same path.

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Dignity Health 2017

Carl Lakari's teen years were consumed by drugs and alcohol.

Stuck in a rut and unable to engage with the world around him, Lakari had no creative outlets, no guidance, and no idea what to do. "What I didn’t get in high school was the support of caring adults and peers to help me find what my passion and gift is in the world," he remembers. He felt helpless and alone, so he turned to drugs and alcohol in search of solace.

Many young people all across the United States battle these same feelings and problems, so Lakari — now in long-term recovery — decided to help them.


He started Project Aware, a youth empowerment program that allows young people to express the tough issues they're dealing with through filmmaking.

Lakari (left) coordinates a production meeting with 2016 Summer Film Institute students. All images via Project Aware, used with permission.

The Maine-based program started in 2003 with cofounder Katey Branch. "We really wanted youth to have a choice or opportunity that I felt like I didn’t at that age," says Lakari.

The students cover a wide spectrum of themes in the films they work on — from bullying to self-harm to underage drinking to suicide. The projects are collaborative, and each student takes on the role they're drawn to the most. Some want to act, some want to direct, and some just want to be extras. But no matter what role they choose, they're all able to tackle important issues they care about in a creative and impactful way.

On set with the student crew and cast in Saco, Maine.

"Adolescents have an immense amount of energy and creativity they need to express," writes cofounder Branch. "It is a part of evolution for teenagers to push the edges. That is where innovation and new ideas emerge. When youth are given healthy channels and support, amazing things happen. When they are left out of healthy opportunities, that energy can get lost in sad, often tragic directions."

Cast members Tyler King and Emily Tierney in the film "April's Heart."

Project Aware is fostering a new generation of artists focused on telling powerful stories and creating meaningful change.

To date, the project has produced 12 short films and more than 20 public service announcements and has garnered hundreds of thousands of online views. By providing a healthy channel for creative expression, Project Aware is reimagining how young people can make their voices heard and inspire others to take action.

Students filming a documentary on racism at the University of New England over the summer.

"A lot of these young people don’t have a voice now," Lakari says. "Many of them may be struggling, labeled in some way. And this is sometimes their very first opportunity to get engaged and involved in leading and having a voice about a particular issue they’re concerned about. They get really excited about that."

The best part? They're sending an important message to other young people: You are not alone.

If all goes according to plan, Lakari hopes to see programs like his all across the country. "A program like Project Aware offers young people the opportunity to get connected with other young people that often share their story or part of their story," he says.

The cast and crew of "Reaching Out," a suicide prevention film to be released in 2017.

Faith-Ann Bishop, a 20-year-old film student in Los Angeles who wrote/cowrote four movies for Project Aware and was featured on the cover of Time magazine, sums it up beautifully in an email.

"It is our job to use our voices to help others find shelter in their thoughts," she writes. "Just one speech, one moment with someone can educate them, and reduce the stigma about mental disorders, suicide, drug use, or unhealthy relationships."

Hannah King in a scene from "A Better Place," which was written and directed by Faith-Ann Bishop.

"Trust yourself and your ability," she continues. "Never let others tell you your art or ideas are not worthy. Your voice is so beautifully unique and it will free you to use it."

All illustrations are provided by Soosh and used with permission.

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