Willie Carrillo, President Native Star Foundation Shares His Quitting Smoking Experience
As we forge forward at the Red Medicine Tobacco Prevention Project there comes a time when you pause and reflect on how we ended up to where we are today. This reflection directed me to think about our leadership and their motivation to take on a project as large as commercial tobacco cessation in Native communities. Beyond the apparent reason to save lives and reduce health disparities there is often a more personal reason to take on a project like this and that’s why I’m writing to introduce you to the founder and President of the Native Star Foundation, Willie Carrillo.
I have known Mr. Carrillo for many years on a professional level and was honored when asked to interview him about his own personal experiences with commercial tobacco. Willie is a very busy person, and I was lucky to catch him on the phone after he got off work as the program director for the Tule River Tribe’s Future Generations Program. As I called him from my small office with my phone on speaker I was looking forward to our conversation. Willie answered his phone as he was leaving his office and sat in his car to have our conversation.
Willie Carrillo is a member of the Tule River Tribe just outside of Porterville CA. He grew up and currently lives on the reservation with his wife and their 5 children and 2 grandchildren. Willie has actively worked with Native youth for nearly 30 years. He started out by providing opportunities for youth to participate in different activities such as cultural events, sports, and meeting other Native youth through conferences. As he states, “my motivation for helping youth was to provide opportunities to that [they] may not have had those opportunities in their upbringing.”
This motivation inspired him to start his own non-profit foundation called, Native Star Foundation, to further his mission of youth development. The mission of the Native Star Foundation is to generate and promote healthy mindsets of Native youth through Native Cultural practices and environmental health. He founded Native Star Foundation with fellow board members Nikia Zavala, and Monty Bengochia, Dr. Joe Graham and Lauren McDarment, Jr
both important role models and mentors to Willie.
The Red Medicine Tobacco Prevention Project was started by Willie Carrillo and RMTPP project director Jackie Kaslow. They have known each other for years and always wanted to work on a project together. When the California Tobacco Control Program grant became available the two applied and were awarded a multiyear grant and Red Medicine Tobacco Prevention Project was started. “Tobacco Prevention has been left by the wayside in our Native communities,” says Willie. “I strongly believe in the Red Medicine Project mission and goals,” he further states.
The RMTPP aims to work with tribal and urban Native youth in Kern, Kings, and Tulare counties to address commercial tobacco use disparities impacting their communities. Our commitment extends to supporting Native youth to reclaim traditional tobacco and preserving cultural values and practices. RMTPP begins with the Native Star Foundation premise that culture is prevention, and health and wellness are essential to youth achieving life goals and aspirations.
But Willie was also motivated to take on commercial tobacco prevention because of a more personal
reason. “I myself was a smoker. My father passed away from what I believe was a smoking related illness,” he goes on to say. He feels smoking contributed to his father’s death. “I grew up with secondhand smoke. I dealt with the side effects, headaches, sinus infections.” According to the American Lung Association; Secondhand smoke is a serious health hazard causing more than 41,000 deaths per year. It can cause or make worse a wide range of damaging health effects in children and adults, including lung cancer, respiratory infections and asthma. He goes on to say, “I’ve been smoking on and off for the past twenty years, but I finally decided to quit and it’s something I still struggle with today.”(1) This brings up a very important point, that quitting smoking is not easy. A smoking relapse can happen to anyone, usually at a time when some event or action triggers a memory where smoking was enjoyable or needed. According to one article: If this has happened to you, know that you are not alone. Many people have gone down this same road. One study that followed ex-smokers for over 20 years found that 39% relapsed at some point. Of those people, 69.5% had successfully quit again by the end of the study. We must also point out that “Slips” are a common part of the quitting process.(2) What is a “Slip”? According to smokefree.gov; A slip is when you smoke one or two cigarettes after you quit smoking. You can learn from slips. Remind yourself that you’ve had a temporary setback. You have not failed and you’re not back to square one. A slip doesn’t make you a smoker again. It also isn’t an excuse to relapse and go back to smoking regularly. A relapse is when you go back to smoking regularly.(3)
“A lot of our communities suffer from tobacco addiction, as well as alcohol and drug addiction. It’s important to me to education our youth and help our people overcome addictions.” Willie has seen addiction firsthand with in his family, his community, and himself. This is the motivation that fuels his desire to help Native youth. It’s become his mission.
I finally asked Willie what finally made him decide to quit smoking? “Both my health and my family. I’m diabetic too. I do want to be around for my kids and grandkids,” he replies. “I still continue to battle my nicotine addictions today,” he admits.
I then ask, “Was it hard for you to quit?” “Comparing to my drinking days, I believe my nicotine addiction was the hardest to overcome. Like I said, I still battle with it to this day”
Nicotine addiction is one of the hardest addictions to quit. Today with the rise of vaping in Native communities, especially targeting youth it’s become more important to help youth understand the challenges nicotine addiction bring and how hard it is to quit. Willie’s story is an example that youth can learn from. It’s more important than ever to stop youth from ever taking that first puff from a cigarette or vape pen. Willie believes through a cultural approach to prevention maybe the key to keep young people from ever touching commercial tobacco.
In Native communities’ traditional tobacco has been used as a prevention method to help deter tribal members from smoking by introducing the cultural component of traditional tobacco.
So, I asked Willie, “How important is the concept of traditional tobacco as a prevention tool?
And he replied, “by educating our young people on traditional tobacco they’re going to be able to give presentations on our behalf. It was foretold to us by our elders that the young will teach the old and I really do believe that, even though it was said a long time ago.”
He goes on to say, “To use the young people to help us, to remind us, to encourage us, to educate us, that’s the way to go and that’s where Red Medicine Project comes in.”
“Our people (Tule River Tribe) used tobacco. When they needed it they would go to the high country where it was grown and get some. They mainly used it for prayer or offering like when you pick elderberry for clapsticks.” “Before we would break up a cigarette as a tobacco offering, but the commercial tobacco pretty much kills everything it touches, so now we tend to use cedar.”
What advice would you tell young people?
“I would tell them if you haven’t started smoking, don’t. It’s not good for you or us (Natives). The same with vaping. Don’t start, it’s very dangerous. It could harm you as well. And commercial tobacco, those chemicals feed those cancer cells and leads to an early death. We have to live as long as we can. We already have enough struggles in life we don’t need to accelerate our demise. Learn to stay away from those negative things and learn to make good choices.”
According to 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey data, 16.1% of American Indian and Alaska Native middle schoolers and 40.4% of American Indian and Alaska Native high schoolers were current e-cigarette users. This is much higher than the general population rate of 27.5% among high schoolers and 10.5% among middle schoolers.(4)
Another thing to think about is quitting smoking is a very hard and long process. Surveys have found even though 80% of smokers would like to quit smoking, less than five percent are able to quit on their own due to the highly addictive properties of nicotine.(5) Quitting can be done, but it will take commitment and work.
In the end, Willie believes it’s about choices that young people will have to face. He says, “It’s all about what they’ll do when they’re faced with these choices and they will be faced with these choices at some point.”
Ultimately, after receiving funding from California Tobacco Control Program to fund the Red Medicine Tobacco Prevention Project, Willie made a conscious choice to lead by example and quit smoking, not just for himself, but for his family. Willie’s story is a perfect example of how hard the quitting process can be as he continues to wrestle with quitting today. Remember quitting smoking can be a long process and don’t get discouraged. Know that “Slips” are a common part of the quitting process and to remind yourself this was a temporary setback and you have not failed. Today Willie continues on the right path and you could be too.
If you need help quitting smoking or interested in learning more about the Red Medicine Project be sure to visit our website and sign up to our mailing list.
Article Written by Daniel Golding, RMTPP Communications and Education Coordinator.