MILLBURN — A music contest with an anti-drug message, made by and for teenagers, is entering its 15th year in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Shout Down Drugs Competition is backed by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and is open to any individual high school student or group of students in the Garden State. These kids write and record original songs and submit them online; then, winners from each county are chosen to perform at a public concert.

This year's free concert will be on Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus on May 10, a long way from the competition's origins as a pilot program confined to Hudson County.

Angelo Valente, PDFNJ executive director, said when the idea was first being developed, organizers figured the best way to reach students and engage them in a drug prevention message was through music. And this not only gives entrants a chance to demonstrate the importance of living a drug-free lifestyle, but also lets them showcase their talents in the process.

Valente said the time, thought, and potential collaboration that goes into each of these submissions yearly -- all of which he thinks are winners -- shows teens can gain a "tremendous amount of insight" by participating.

"It's really a wonderful opportunity for young people to really be peer leaders, and to send an important message to their peers," he said. "Not only in New Jersey, but because of the fact that this is an online competition with regard to the judging, there are people throughout the world that get an opportunity to hear this message."

According to Valente, more than 1 million people have listened to at least one of these students' songs over the course of 15 years.

Submissions are due by this Friday, Feb. 1, and online voting begins Feb. 15. At the May concert, judges with law enforcement, drug prevention, and music industry backgrounds will evaluate each song's performance and message, and award three top prizes: a $5,000 music contract for the first-place winner, $3,000 for second place, and $2,000 for third place.

Valente said with that money, the winners can become ambassadors for an anti-drug message by getting the chance to continue to perform and promote their songs for the rest of the year.

For more about the competition, visit shoutdowndrugs.com.

Patrick Lavery is Senior Producer of Morning News and Special Programming for New Jersey 101.5, and is lead reporter and substitute anchor for "New Jersey's First News." Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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