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Painting a life without addiction

Winged dream machine helps teach drug-free lesson

Jaiani Hammonds paints a Cessna 182 through SafeLaunch. Photo courtesy of SafeLaunch.

An airplane-as-metaphor for "the vast possibilities that a life without addiction holds" is helping a California nonprofit steer youngsters away from early exposure to drug abuse.

SafeLaunch, of Santa Barbara, California, taps resources of education, art, and aviation to preempt the damage that drug or alcohol abuse can inflict on its most vulnerable prey: children.

When exposed to alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, "children are up to six times more vulnerable to the brain disease of addiction than adults," SafeLaunch says, citing information from addiction education organization Casa Columbia. That means all children. Forget about demographic or socioeconomic sub-categories, or common notions of at-risk populations. When it comes to the vulnerability of children to addiction, labels don’t apply.

About 90 percent of the time, addiction begins in the teen years, SafeLaunch says. By facing down addiction for what it is—"a preventable brain disease"—SafeLaunch believes addiction can be defeated.

How do art and aviation play a role in prevention?

SafeLaunch’s Flights Above Addiction program "invites teams of student artists to paint an airplane at regional airports. After participating in an interactive lesson about the science of addiction, the artists depict their own dreams on the fuselage of the plane."

Janet Rowse and Ron Cuff of SafeLaunch with the Cessna 182. Photo courtesy of SafeLaunch.

Photos and videos of the event are shared, or viewed in news media reports, extending the program’s reach from the dozens who take part first hand to thousands more. Another SafeLaunch program offers awards for students who best interpret a theme about addiction through media including art, photography, music, video, writing, and drama. A third program coordinates a SafeLaunch parents association that helps parents educate themselves to effectively help their children resist pressures to try drugs, especially in the home or in schools, where much of the exposure risk is found.

SafeLaunch was founded in 2010 by restaurateur/artist Janet Rowse, retired naval aviator Ron Cuff, and registered nurse Mari Mender. The founders combined their skills and experience to prevent or delay children’s early exposure to addiction risk.

The emphasis is on prevention through education, because contrary to one all-too-common point of view, addiction is not a choice, said Cuff and Rowse in an AOPA interview. "It’s folly to expect someone who’s 12 or 13 [to] make good choices," Cuff said. "Adults are charged with protecting them."

Cuff is a retired Navy pilot with 120 carrier landings under his belt, and a past president of the San Luis Obispo Child Abuse Prevention Council. He serves as the "tour pilot," flying his Cessna 182S to airports where SafeLaunch meets with groups of young people in sessions typically arranged through local youth clubs. Taxiing or even a flight in the Cessna sometimes caps off a day’s session, as shown in this SafeLaunch video

Children paint the Cessna 182 with water colors. Photo courtesy SafeLaunch.

'We’ve got a canvas here'

Here’s how the idea to somehow introduce the airplane into SafeLaunch’s work came to life. Rowse—an artist, the owner of a Santa Barbara institution, the Paradise Café, and a former board member of the Santa Barbara High School Education Foundation—and Cuff found that they both thought an aircraft’s unique fascination offered a teaching tool too valuable to ignore. (Rowse, who took ground school in college, takes flight lessons, and describes herself as "the most enthusiastic copilot who I think is walking on the planet today," shares the fascination with aviation, she said.)

The path the Cessna would take to its transformation as an unusual medium for artistic expression grew out of a gripe Cuff had with the airplane since he acquired it in 2006.

"I never really liked the striping on it," he said.

Removing it left him with a solid white airplane.

"I told Janet, ‘We’ve got a canvas here.'"

SafeLaunch and its artistically accented airframe will likely gain more visibility as the 2015 aviation event season gets underway through appearances at various events including several large-turnout airshows in California.

Rowse and Cuff will be looking for new partners and sponsors of their anti-addiction organization’s mission, as they also work to convey the message that flight, while a wonderful dream, can also become a reality—or a career—for girls and boys alike.

The SafeLaunch Skylane won’t look the same twice as it makes its public rounds. Like dreams, the images painted vividly and enthusiastically (in water colors) on every part of the Cessna by young artists are ever-changing, and evoke, for Rowse, the work of Alexander Calder, the sculptor and mobile inventor famous for exploring the use of nontraditional materials and methods.

"They’re so personal," Rowse said of the painted images, and their young creators. "Whoever they are and whatever they bring, it’s more about the process than the product."

The painting of the airplane has proven "a great way for us to communicate," she said, adding, "Art speaks when words fail."

Photo courtesy of SafeLaunch.
Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Flight School, Aviation Industry

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