Herricks student’s Betty Ford documentary leads to national honor

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Prerna Chaudhary, a junior, is among 13 Herricks High School students advancing to the National History Day finals. (Photo courtesy of the Herricks school district)

By Rebekah Barnes

For about four years, Prerna Chaudhary has been exploring civil and social rights. From child labor laws to women’s rights and feminist movements, Chaudhary has consistently wanted to shed light on underrepresented groups through research.

She’s only 17.

Chaudhary is a junior at Herricks High School and is participating in National History Day. Her project this year on the life of former first lady Betty Ford landed her in the final round of the national competition and gained recognition from Ford’s nonprofit, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

The theme of this year’s National History Day competition is “Taking a Stand in History.” For her project, Chaudhary created a 10-minute documentary following the life of Ford, who overcame addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, according to her biography from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.

Ford advocated for social issues such as addiction services, abortion rights, breast cancer awareness and women’s rights. She died in 2011.

Ford also created the Betty Ford Center, a rehabilitation center, in 1982, which later merged with the Hazelden treatment center in 2014, according to the foundation’s website.

Some parts of the process for Chaudhary’s project came easier than others. She hadn’t created a documentary before this year, but Chaudhary had used software to edit footage of her family vacations.

Chaudhary had to put a lot of effort into her script and interviewing primary sources to help tell Ford’s story. Recently, Chaudhary was able to interview Michael Ford, Betty’s son, for her project.

“I’m not someone who likes talking to strangers or adults in general, but I think this experience really opened me up,” Chaudhary said.

She contacted the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which offers treatment for addiction and works to combat negative stereotypes about addiction.

She interviewed Jeremiah Gardner, manager of public affairs and advocacy, who was impressed by Chaudhary’s “matter of fact” interviewing technique about Ford and addiction.

She “didn’t tiptoe around” what some might consider a touchy subject, he said.

After Gardner passed her name and project onto other staff members, the foundation decided to show Chaudhary’s project at the foundation’s anniversary in November.

“I think one of the interesting things about Prerna’s approach and creating this video is that it really does treat [addiction] as a health care issue,” Christopher Yadron, the executive director for Hazelden in New York, said. “It’s interesting to see high schoolers today be exposed to the problem in a different way, … which I think is helpful than the way it was portrayed in the past as a moral failing as opposed to a health care issue that can be treated.”

Melissa Jacobs, a Herricks social studies teacher, and Samantha Gerantabee, a Herricks library media specialist, advise students on National History Day projects.

There are three levels of competition: regional, state and national. After the New York state level, the top two students in each category advance to the national contest, which starts on June 11 in College Park, Maryland.

Gerantabee said the district has at least one project per year advance to the national finals. This year, 13 Herricks students who worked on four projects are advancing to the national competition, according to a district news release.

This is Chaudhary’s first year advancing to that level of the competition. Gerantabee and Jacobs said they were impressed by her passion and research into Ford’s life.

Students walk away from their involvement in National History Day with skills in research and interviewing, the teachers said.

Chaudhary said it takes a lot of time to complete projects. Along with her documentary, she is also working to complete her Girl Scout Gold Award by creating a composting program at Jackson Main Elementary School in Hempstead.

But it’s all worth it — and she encourages other students to find out on their own.

“It can seem really time consuming — and it definitely is … but at the end of the day, whether you make it or not to the next level, it’s really worth it because you learn so much,” Chaudhary said.

Chaudhary said she’s looking forward to feedback from the judges for the final round that will help in her last year of involvement before graduating.

As she continues to work on and share her project, she wants others to realize the legacy Ford left behind.

“I want America to know how brave [Ford] was and that it’s because of her people today are able to go to rehab and get treatment to better their own lives,” Chaudhary said. “Even if they don’t know it, they owe her a thanks.”

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