Katie Dempsey is counting down the hours until she can slip into her party dress and step into Connie Chung's shoes.
Tomorrow night, the 13-year-old will have a chance to play the celebrated journalist when she moderates a discussion on youth issues in front of several hundred adults and children.
Her strong, clear voice landed her the job.
Katie was one of five middle school students chosen to emcee "We Need You 1990" -- a 2 -hour program of song, skits and dance centered on youth concerns.
The show will feature mostly Annapolis-area students, but will also include young people from Millersville and Severna Park.
"Most of the time, we have programs where adults tell kids what they should do," said Darius A. Stanton, youth coordinator for the county's Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs. "I wanted to give children a chance to speak out."
More than 75 children, from sixth-graders to 16-year-olds, will voice their opinions on the hottest topics of the '90s tomorrow night. In true "infotainment" style, they will debate everything from teen suicide to AIDS between performing anti-drug songs and dances.
The free program at Annapolis High School will open at 5 p.m. with a sing-along about staying clean and sober. Highlights include the panel discussion on youth issues; a ballet performed by children from the Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts, and a psychodrama on the impact of teen suicide by Peer Scene Theater, a Millersville improvisational troupe.
Invitations were sent to county politicians and dignitaries, youth advocates and families living in Annapolis' 10 housing projects.
Stanton, who hopes to stage a similar program in North County soon, started fighting the rampant drug abuse in the schools and projects soon after graduating from high school. He said he invited people from as many walks of life as possible to "avoid preaching to the choir."
"The projects isolate children too much," the 20-year-old said. "It's like a concrete jungle. The children there have very few opportunities to get out."
To break down those barriers and reach more at-risk children, Stanton arranged to have buses pick up families at Eastport Terrace, Robinwood, Newtowne, Obery Court and Annapolis Gardens starting at 3:45 p.m. tomorrow.
He hopes "We Need You 1990" will be the first of many children-oriented programs that will "showcase talented young people" and spread the anti-drug message.
"The reason why we decided not to limit it to drug abuse is that drugs are just another symptom of the problems youths face," he said. "We need, as a community, to start looking at the whole picture."
Huntley J. Cross, director of the Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs that's sponsoring the show, agreed. He called "We Need You 1990" a significant step in the war on drugs.
"If we're going to attack the drug problem, we need a community perspective," said Cross, who will give a seven-minute speech during the show touting his favorite maxims.
The county's drug policy coordinator hopes his brief message is powerful enough to help combat the constant, pervasive pressure from advertising that glamorizes alcohol use. He said he still cringes every time he sees one of the Miller ads showing a yuppie man playing Frisbee with his dog and then indulging in a cold beer.
"It's just repulsive," Cross said emphatically. "It's saying a man's best friends are his beer and his dog. These are subtle things that we're trying to counteract."
Tomorrow night's show is a "weapon in that battle," Cross said. He's optimistic that the rap music and skits, the ballet and talks will reach at least a few parents and children.
Katie has the same dream. Although the school system sponsors plenty of anti-drug talks and seminars, she said some students still can't resist lighting up a joint or downing a beer.
"Maybe, if it's kids talking to kids, then maybe they'll listen," said the eighth-grader at Bates Middle School.