His voice is hoarse and scratchy, like someone with a lingering case of the flu or an over-zealous sports fan.
But no amount of rest, cough drops or medication can cure his voice.
"Would you want to talk like this forever?" asked Fred Haywood, 55, a former smoker and cancer survivor, who now works as a tobacco educator at Frye Regional Medical Center.
The group of Concordia Christian School students Haywood was addressing shake their heads vigorously. No, they would never want a voice like Haywood's. It was cigarettes, Haywood told the students, that made him sound the way he does.
Haywood will speak with about 1,500 Catawba County students in March and April about the dangers of smoking and why they should never light up a cigarette.
If anyone knows the dangers associated with tobacco use, it's Haywood.
He started smoking at 18, because, he said, "Everybody around me was smoking."
Haywood was in his mid-30s when he sought help for a continually sore throat, raspy voice and severe cough.
Doctors diagnosed Haywood with throat cancer, and the New York native moved to North Carolina for cancer treatment. After discussing treatment options with doctors, Haywood decided to have his larynx and vocal cords — about 90 percent of his neck — removed. Haywood also received 35 radiation treatments to prevent his cancer from spreading or returning.
"When I smoked cigarettes, it affected my voice box, and they had to take it out," he said. "Not too cool, right?"
Haywood was told he might never speak again, but a Blum Singer speech prosthesis gave him that opportunity. The device allows air to pass through, but not fluids, which prevents him from choking. Without the device, he can't speak at all.
Tracey Paul, a health promotion coordinator at Catawba County Public Health has worked with Haywood for 17 years to arrange student tours and speak about preventing tobacco use. She said Haywood has a way with students that makes them listen to what he has to say.
"It's more affective coming from him than it would be coming from me," Paul said.
During Haywood's presentation to students, he tells them cigarettes contain 4,000 chemicals, many of which are found in household chemicals. He shows them bottles of nail polish remover, bug spray and bleach before telling students that each of the products contain chemicals found in cigarettes.
"My grandfather smokes, and I've told him not to, but he still does it anyway," one student told Haywood during his presentation. "What can I do?"
Haywood and Paul explained to students about addiction and how difficult it is to stop smoking once the habit is started.
"If you guys never start, you never have to stop," Paul said.
After 17 years of educating thousands of students, Haywood said he hopes to have prevented students from suffering the same smoking consequences he did.
"Five years later, I have teenagers come up to me and say, 'Mr. Fred, I'm so glad I met you. I will never (smoke),'" Haywood said. "I believe I've stopped 100s, I'd say 1,000s, of kids from smoking."
Haywood has been cancer free for almost 20 years. He credits his doctors, as well as his determination to overcome cancer, as reasons why he beat the disease.
Haywood's teaching opportunities are just some of Catawba County's attempts to prevent students from lighting up a cigarette.
"Over 4,000 teens try their first cigarette each day, and half of them will become regular daily smokers," said Jennifer Shomaker, tobacco prevention coordinator at Catawba County Public Health. "We can help protect the health of our youth in Catawba County by educating them about the dangers of tobacco use and by providing cessation opportunities and information for teens who already use tobacco."
Haywood also speaks at churches, youth groups and other events in North Carolina and beyond. He estimated he reaches about 50,000 children a year.
For more information about Haywood and his tobacco awareness program, visit www.fhtap.com .