BALSAM LAKE, Wis. - A generation of students grew up with the message "Just Say No" to drugs.
Photographer Kelly Bakke is approaching the topic with a positive spin.
In November, Bakke launched a photo project at Unity School in Balsam Lake that started with the question: "What's your anti-drug."
She asked Unity students - elementary age through high school - to indentify one thing in their lives that gives them a healthy high. Bakke then posed and photographed the students engaged in that activity.
"I personally think it works because it is personal and it makes people look inside themselves to find out what is important to them," says Bakke.
With the school's permission, Bakke used the photos to create a display that now covers part of a wall in a high-traffic area near the cafeteria. Students in the portraits are engaged in activities such as music, sports and reading.
The response has been so favorable Bakke recently completed a second round of photographs with a new group of students to enlarge the display. This time she also included teachers, school staff and principals.
Unity District Administrator Brandon Robinson turned a few heads when he pushed his Polaris ATV through the school doors for his photograph. "That's really what the whole campaign is about, recognizing what you really enjoy in life and then really going with it," he said.
The message has even deeper meaning for Bakke, who understands personally the lure of unhealthy decisions. In 1998 her fiancé was killed in a car crash on the day after Christmas, two days after he'd proposed to Bakke.
Her fiancé had been responsible for her interest in photography. After his death Bakke put her camera away as her despair deepened.
"I knew what it would be like to die of a broken heart," she says now. To escape the emotional pain, Bakke began cutting herself, "and immediately after I did, I felt that relief."
She calls it the "lowest point in my life."
Bakke's family intervened. Eventually her father convinced her to pick up her camera again. To this day she is grateful for "having him continue to tell me, 'Push forward and do the things you love.'"
Over time Bakke rediscovered love and married her husband Wayne. Together they have two children, 10-year-old Keegan and 9-year-old Larysa, who are both featured in the anti-drug display.
"I think it makes kids realize there's plenty of stuff that stands between them and drugs," says Larysa, who loves to draw and color and posed with her artwork.
She is right of course. Plenty of things can stand between kids and drugs. At Unity School one of them is Kelly Bakke.
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