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Raleigh dancer encourages nation to be drug free

Posted October 25, 2015

Johanna Manzlillo of Raleigh is the 2015 National Red Ribbon Week Youth Ambassador

Red Ribbon Week runs through Oct. 31. It's a national effort to raise awareness about drug abuse and encourage families to take a stand against drugs with a local ambassador - Johanna Colon, the Raleigh girl who went viral earlier this year with her sassy dance recital performance to Aretha Franklin's "Respect."

Fittingly, this year's theme is "Respect Yourself. Be Drug Free." Johanna, who has celebrated Red Ribbon Week in her own Wake County school, is the campaign's official youth ambassador.

“Johanna’s contagious energy, enthusiasm, spirit, leadership qualities and self-confidence make her the perfect youth ambassador and representative for this year’s theme," said Peggy Sapp, president of the National Family Partnership, which organizes Red Ribbon Week, in a press release back in July.

Red Ribbon Week is held in memory of DEA Special Agent Kiki Camarena, who was was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Mexico. The Red Ribbon Campaign is the oldest and largest drug prevention program in the United States. During the week, schools and other community groups will be taking part in celebrations. Kids and families will be encouraged to sign the Drug Free Pledge.

I checked in with Elissa Colon, Johanna's mom, about life since that June dance recital with Heather's Dance Inc. in Knightdale. More than 70 million people have seen Johanna channel Franklin on stage. And she's had a chance to travel across the country for appearances and interviews. The family lives in Raleigh where Johanna, 7, is in second grade and started homeschool about two weeks ago. Johanna's brother CJ, 4, is critically ill.

I checked in with Elissa, a former teacher who left to stay home with her son, to learn more about life since that dance recital. Here's our email chat.

Go Ask Mom: What has Johanna been up to since her big dance recital? You've gotten to travel around the country!

Elissa Colon: Yes, we have gotten to travel quite a bit. She has been on Good Morning America and Despieta America. She also was given the opportunity to tape a YouTube video with her favorite star from Nickelodeon. She most recently was on Ellen and just taped an episode of The Doctors. She has also been busy doing different YouTube events. Lots of fun stuff!

GAM: Tell me about how she was picked to be the Youth Ambassador for Red Ribbon Week. You were already familiar with it through Johanna's school and your work.

EM: The lovely people from Red Ribbon Week contacted us after seeing Johanna's video. We are so excited to be working with them. We were familiar with the program from both my former employment and Johanna's school. It's an amazing program that really gives families the opportunity to discus such a difficult subject in a fun, non-threatening way. The awesome people asked if Johanna would be part of their campaign and we jumped at the chance.

GAM: Why is the Red Ribbon Week message so important for families? How is Johanna getting involved?

EM: The Red Ribbon message is so important for families because parents are our children's most influential role models. The program gives parents a chance to have fun, open conversations with their kids about drug and alcohol prevention. When parents can engage with their kids in a non-threatening way, kids are more open to the message. Johanna loves being involved in the program! She is going out to both local and her national events, spreading the message to respect yourself and be drug free!

GAM: How can parents have these kind of important discussions with their kids?

EM: Just having open conversations about what the kids are doing in school during Red Ribbon Week is a great way to start! Talk about the meanings behind the funny events going on and talk about the importance of being drug free!

GAM: What's next for Johanna?

EM: Well, locally, Johanna is getting ready for her next performance with her dance school. Heather's Dance Inc. puts on a Christmas production with all the benefits going to Raleigh Rescue Mission. She will also be the grand marshal in the Knightdale Christmas parade! She also has an appearance at Hodge Road Elementary to pump the kids up about being drug free on Nov. 2! We are super excited!

Here's that famous performance!

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  • Justin McConkey Oct 27, 2015
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    First she'll have to take on the FDA--the world's most powerful drug pusher.