Utah school children were told Thursday to wage their own personal war on drugs by believing in themselves, by studying hard, caring about others and remembering that God loves them.

"Each and every one of you is a miracle. Just look at yourself. Just look at how beautiful you are," said Broadway and television star Ben Vereen as he addressed the opening general session of the 7th annual Life Skills Conference in Salt Lake City.About 3,200 students in third through sixth grade from most of Utah's 40 school districts attended the session in the Salt Palace arena.

Marjorie J. Vincent, Miss America 1991, also spoke at the gathering, sponsored by the Utah Federation for Drug-Free Youth. Theme for the gathering, which continues through Saturday, is "Reaching for a Natural High."

Vereen starred as Chicken George in the mini-TV series, "Roots." He is spearheading Celebrities for a Drug-Free America, and has had many musical, comedic and dramatic roles. They include the musical "Pippin," and the docudrama "Louis Armstrong - Chicago Style."

Vereen danced a few quick steps to entertain the children, but he spent most of his time talking about the dangers of drugs and sharing his experiences. He repeatedly praised the students, asked them a lot of questions and waited for their response. And he responded to a number of student inquiries about his own involvement in drugs.

"How many of you know some friends on drugs today?" Vereen asked. Hundreds of children raised their hands.

"That's too many. Isn't that too many?" he asked, with the audience responding with an emphatic "yes."

He said, "We've got to do something about those numbers. I want you to do something for me," he said, encouraging students to try and do well in school, to stay close to their parents and teachers and to avoid making the same mistakes that adults make.

"Without a good mind . . . those people out there (with drugs) will walk right into your mind and tell you a lot of lies. And the next thing you know is that you will be hooked on drugs. Let me tell you something about being hooked on drugs. It is no fun. Your whole life will be ruined. There is no such thing as a quick fix," he said.

In response to questions by some of the youths, Vereen openly admitted his own involvement with drugs beginning in the 1960s. He said he has been free of drugs for 3 1/2 years and for the past 2 1/2 years has been actively working to help others.

Vincent, a post-graduate student at Duke University Law School and an accomplished pianist, reminded the children that most people are well aware that drugs are no good. But still, "thousands of children are victims of this dangerous enemy."

"Drugs are wrong. Don't do it," she said, telling the youths that she is glad she never yielded to the temptation. Had that occurred, "I would not be where I am today."

Students flocked to shake hands with Vincent, Vereen, Gov. Norm Bangerter and Utah First Lady Colleen Bangerter, honorary chairwoman of the federation, as they left the arena. The Bangerters spoke briefly, with Mrs. Bangerter introducing Vereen and Vincent.


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Drug-prevention honors

Roy's Municipal Elementary School and Rose Park Elementary from Salt Lake District were recognized Thursday for exemplary efforts in drug-prevention programs.

Four other schools - Granite Park Junior High, Pleasant Grove High School, Highland High and Cyprus High - were to be similarly honored Friday during the 7th annual Life Skills Conference in the Salt Palace.

Carol Voorhees, drug-abuse prevention program specialist for the Utah State Office of Education, and Beverlee Campbell, president-elect of the Utah Federation for Drug-Free Youth, presented framed certificates to representatives of the Roy and Rose Park schools Thursday.

All six schools were nominated for national honors in the Drug-Free School Recognition program, with five having received an on-site visit from the U.S. Department of Education.

"We're hoping we will have some national winners," Voorhees said earlier this week.

"We have had at least one Utah school be recognized nationally every year. This year U.S. officials made 87 site visits with five of that number being in Utah," she said.

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