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Let the countdown begin.

The 24th annual First Night Buffalo kicked off Monday at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center with a sneak peak of this year’s lineup.

The holiday tradition is an alcohol- and drug-free event that offers family-friendly activities to ring in the New Year.

“We encourage all of you – kids, parents, everyone – to come out and enjoy this event. Celebrate the beginning of 2013 together at this wonderful alcohol- and drug-free event,” said Dr. Michael W. Cropp, president and chief executive officer of Independent Health.

First Night draws about 5,000 people each year, organizers said, and is presented by the Independent Health Foundation. The event will be held from 5 to 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

The top floor of the center will be turned into an amusement park with carnival rides. Downstairs, each room will feature activities and entertainment, including comedian and stunt man Wacky Chad, Terry Buchwald’s tribute to Elvis Presley, the Red Trouser Show, Magician Wade Live and juggler Nels Ross, who gave a brief demonstration at Monday’s kickoff ceremony.

Other First Night activities include laser tag, a toddler area, music and a grand finale balloon drop.

On display will be all 646 entries from an artwork and poetry contest for school-age children throughout Western New York. The contest was sponsored by Western New York United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, and the young people were directed to write about or create a piece of art related to a drug-free lifestyle.

Twenty-one schools and organizations were represented. Eighteen winners were chosen, including Jennifer Orie, an 11th-grader at Nardin Academy, who won third prize in her age group for a poem, “A Drug-Free Life.”

“It’s telling a story of a boy growing up. His dad was an alcoholic, and the boy started drinking, too. But when he was older, he realized that was not the life he wanted to live and changed,” she said.

Fellow Nardin student Annie Schenk, a 10th-grader, won second place for her poem about a drug-free future. It was about a young man who was likable until he started doing drugs.

“As he got older, everyone remembered they used to know a great person,” she said. “Now they don’t.”

Kindergarten to fourth-grade artwork winners included: Jacob Alvira (first place), Emma Rinn (second) and Caleb Stoehr (third). All attend A.J. Schmidt Elementary School in Angola. Poetry winners from the same age group were: Ethan Simmons (first place), Isaiah Reed (second) and Mikayla Blume (third) of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna. Ethan and Isaiah represented the Valley Community Association.

Fifth-grade to eighth-grade artwork winners were: first place, Alissa McFadden; second place, Noah Carpino; third place, Nathan Allen from Big Tree Elementary in Hamburg. Alissa and Noah represented the Valley Community Association. Poetry winners from the same group were: first place, Jacob Gleave of St. Stephen School, Grand Island; second place, Joseph Lema of Waterfront Elementary; and third, Katie Taylor of A.J. Schmidt Elementary.

Artwork winners from the ninth to 12th grade category included: first place, Gabby Bonerb; second place, May Ren; third place, Emilee Chiavetta, all of Immaculata Academy in Hamburg. McKaila McKenney of Leonardo DaVinci High School was the first-place poetry winner for the ninth-grade to 12th-grade category.

Mayor Byron W. Brown, who also attended the kickoff ceremony, said, “We should all be proud of this event. This is one of the longest running drug and alcohol free celebrations in the entire U.S.”

Advance First Night tickets are $8 and include all rides, attractions and activities. They can be purchased at all local Wegmans locations. Tickets are $10 at the door. Children 2 and under are admitted free. Free parking will be available at the Fernbach and Main Place Mall parking ramps.

For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit First Night Buffalo website at www.FirstNightBuffalo.org or call 635-4959.

email: dswilliams@buffnews.com