Former NBA player Chris Herren to speak to WA students on Nov. 22


Sophia Keang

The Westford Academy Herren Project club’s bulletin board near the foreign language hall. The club meets every Thursday and is open to anyone interested in spreading awareness about substance abuse.

Sophia Keang, Editor-in-Chief

In order to increase awareness about substance abuse and the effects of drug and substance use on students’ mental health, WA will host a school-wide assembly on Tuesday, Nov. 22 where former Boston Celtics player Chris Herren will speak about his story with substance use and wellness. The senior and junior classes will be with Herren in person in the Performing Arts Center, while the sophomore and freshman classes will watch a live recording of his speech in the main gymnasium. 

Formerly known as Project Purple, the Herren Project was founded by Herren himself in 2011. Having been through a long-term recovery from drug use since Aug. 1, 2008, the Herren Project represents one of the first steps in the recovery journey.

As a Massachusetts native, Herren spent the majority of his life in the same state. He grew up in Fall River, MA, and then furthered both his academic and athletic career at Boston College in 1994. Prior to his time at BC, he was named to the McDonald’s All-American team during high school. While he was a star on the basketball court, his involvement with drugs sent him down a bad path. The excessive use of oxytocin, percocets, heroin, and alcohol was detrimental not only to his athletic career but his life in general.

The Herren Project club at WA is a student-run organization led by senior President Aashi Gurtata. The club meets every Thursday to run monthly initiatives to raise awareness within a supportive school community.

“I really hope students will take away that resorting to drinking and doing drugs can be dangerous,” Gurtata said. “Although it might feel like the only option, there are several people always there to help, and the Herren Project club at school is only one of many.”

When Jozokos first heard about the initiative, she knew how impactful the effects of substance-abuse is within the WA community; thus, she was the founder of the Herren Project at Westford Academy. Then, she reached out to Herren to speak for the classes of WA in hopes his first-hand experience will touch the lives of the students in Westford affected by drug use.

“Everyone’s story starts somewhere,” Jozokos said. “A lot of times it starts with a red solo cup or someone just experimenting with marijuana for the first time. But they don’t realize that this could lead them down a path of destruction.”

According to the Herren Project website, the project’s vision is a “stronger, more resilient, and connected community where all people thrive free of the effects of the disease of addiction.”

“We brought the Herren Project to Westford Academy in 2013 and it’s been strong ever since,” Jozokos said. “Our [Herren Project] main focus is to make sure kids are okay with who they are, and if they’re okay with who they are, they don’t need substances.”

According to Jozokos, in previous years after Herren came to speak to WA, student responses were highly overwhelming. Students often begin to self-reflect due to the fact that Herren mentions his struggle with mental health; thus, the guidance department often saw an increase in students reaching out to their counselors or a trusting adult to talk about their struggles.

“The Herren Project isn’t just about students who want to stay sober. It’s about the students who have made the choice to also get somewhere if they want to join sobriety as well […],” Jozokos said. “To come back from an addiction of any kind, become sober, to be able to reinvent oneself, and live your life drug-free is amazing. So for students to be able to realize the fact that they don’t have to change themselves just to fit in is eye-opening.”

Furthermore, other students are also looking forward to watching Herren’s speech. Senior Madhav Jhawar had already attended one of Herren’s seminars held at WA when he was younger. However, he’s still excited that his classmates will have the opportunity to learn about the significance of drug abuse through a first-hand survivor. 

“I’m definitely looking forward to Chris Herren’s speech,” Jhawar said. “When I was in middle school, I attended one of Chris Herren’s seminars at WA, and I found it truly inspirational how he overcame his drug addiction. […] At the time, he was a very promising player on the Celtics, but I’m happy that he’s using his platform for educating people about the severity of drug addiction because I think many kids nowadays can really resonate with that.”

Overall, Jozokos and Gurtata are excited about Herren’s speech. The two have heard a lot of positive feedback from students and faculty in the past, and are grateful for this opportunity, as it speaks volumes for society’s future leaders.

“All of the administration is really passionate about getting this message out there. […] We have students struggling with substance use disorder every day, and drug addicts are not bad people,” Jozokos said. “As a society, we look at them as trash, but they’re not trash. They’re human beings that started with a story, and that story might just need some help.”