Growing up in rural Wayne County, Kacey Philbrick never saw herself as a future activist. She was just a doting daughter who tried to get her dad to kick the habit.
“It was a childhood goal of mine to get him to stop smoking,” Philbrick said. “In school, we were taught that smoking is wrong, so I would relay that information to my father. He would just shrug it off.
“As a kid, you think your parents are invincible. He passed away the day after my 19th birthday.”
Ron Philbrick was 53. Philbrick was devastated.
“He was an awesome dad,” she said of her father, a mason who enjoyed working with his hands.
Philbrick has turned her grief into inspiration. After working with the American Lung Association in 2018, the Wayne Central High School graduate researched anti-smoking volunteer opportunities online and discovered the Truth Initiative.
The nonprofit organization promotes tobacco-free lifestyles in part by supporting and publicizing anti-smoking projects created by teenagers and young adults. It was exactly what she was looking for.
Philbrick was one of some 10,000 applicants for 10 openings. In December, the field was narrowed to 1,500. Earlier this year, the final selections were made. Philbrick was among them.
She said she didn’t hold back during her interviews about her personal reasons for wanting to join the Truth Initiative.
“I didn’t want to have a powerful story, but I was given one, so I used it,” she said.
As one of 12 Class of 2019 truth ambassadors, including two returning members, Philbrick is now on the front lines in the fight to reduce smoking among her peer group.
She and her fellow ambassadors — who represent 11 different states including Florida, Texas and Nebraska — spent several days at the Truth Initiative’s Washington, D.C., headquarters learning about smoking laws and activism.
“There were presentations about different smoking policies across America,” Philbrick said. “What are the policies in different states? What age is it legal to buy tobacco and nicotine products in different states?”
She said the organization doesn’t tell its ambassadors how to advocate.
“They do a lot of educating,” said Philbrick, who is a member of Keuka College’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Committee. “They’re not telling you what to do, but they’re giving you the information to make that conclusion yourself. We’re the ones students and other young people want to hear from.”
They’ll be hearing plenty.
Philbrick and her fellow ambassadors have split into three groups, each of which will hold a regional anti-smoking summit this summer for high school students. She and her teammates will host their event in Cincinnati.
Later this summer, the ambassadors plan to visit Raleigh, North Carolina, the heart of tobacco-growing country. Their plans? “Show up and make our presence known,” said Philbrick.
She also intends to create a mural on the Keuka College campus to promote a smoke-free lifestyle — one that targets not only cigarettes but popular devices used for vaping.
“As Juuls and vapes are becoming more popular, more information is needed,” Philbrick said. “We don’t really even know what’s in them.”
Her anti-smoking activism comes as no surprise to those who know her.
“You can really see how she lights up when she discusses promoting anti-tobacco education here on campus,” said Jared Stammer, Keuka College’s assistant director of student conduct and community standards.
An education major, Philbrick said her recent experiences are shaping how she thinks not only about issues surrounding smoking, but about herself and her future.
“Education comes in so many different forms,” she said. “I can still be a teacher. I just may not be a teacher of children. I may be a teacher of older adolescents.”
Less than a year and a half after her father’s passing, Philbrick said she has used her grief to fuel her anti-smoking efforts — and surprised herself in the process.
“What I’ve learned is that I really am a leader,” she said. “I found strength in myself that I didn’t know I had.”
And as she uses that strength to advocate for smoke-free lifestyles, the memory of her father is never far from her thoughts.
“I did fail in getting my father to stop smoking, but I will never fail again and that’s what’s really pushing me,” she said. “There’s another little girl out there whose father smokes and that’s why — excuse my language — I’ll be damned if I fail again.”