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By Dennis Miller, BHC Senior Writer

Classroom lectures, assembly-hall speeches and informational brochures can give teens the facts on drug and alcohol use, but fall short of offering a direct, realistic and emotional experience of drug abuse’s often devastating consequences. The interactive educational experience called Reality Tour® is designed to add that element to drug education programs. Created by Norma Norris of Candle, Inc., Reality Tour takes participants through many of the potential consequences of drug abuse with staged but realistic simulations of a drug arrest, overdose, funeral and other events an addict may experience.

The Reality Tour experience includes innovative computer software that adds a personal dimension to each child's Reality Tour experience, a 40-minute parent/child coping skills segment, and a self-assessment tool that offers suggestions for activities parents and children can do to help prevent drug abuse, including a six-week challenge to assess their own powers of self-discipline. It also provides first-person accounts from law enforcement and addicts in recovery through a carefully structured interactive interview process.

The innovative program, designed to grab the attention of young teens raised on reality TV dramatics, moves its audience through a series of settings and vignettes that realistically depict events in the life of a drug addict. The package comes as a Program Model which is licensed to organizations to present the Reality Tour at one declared site. Presenting organizations are encouraged to improvise dialogue and details, using actual local law enforcement, hospitals, doctors and even funeral home directors. The model includes a 150-page manual and a 90-minute DVD that trains volunteers, along with other materials such as pre- and post-tests, and exit surveys. It is designed to be experienced by parents and children from 10 to 18 years of age.

An initial three-month run extended indefinitely

“I wanted to do something about kids becoming addicted to drugs and dying from heroin overdoses in my community,” says Reality Tour’s creator, Norma Norris, on the Candle, Inc. website. “Since kids have drug prevention education from K-12, either they didn't believe what they were being told in class, or they didn't think the consequences could happen to them. I realized that parents, like me, were clueless as to what temptations our children experience daily. One in four families have a member struggling with addiction. I felt that parent and child needed to be on the same page, with the same information. That information had to be delivered in an engaging manner; it had to be true, emotionally charged and consequence-driven.”

The Tour was first presented in 2003 in Butler County, Pennsylvania, and planned to run for just three months as part of a drug prevention and education campaign. The response was so positive that Norris decided to abandon her career in advertising and devote herself full-time to making the Tour available to others nationwide. Today, 29 percent of Pennsylvania counties offer it as part of their drug education and prevention efforts, and it’s beginning to spread to other states. It has won the national Acts of Caring Award and was named Community-Based Crime Prevention Program of 2008, and in January of 2008 was accepted to the federal government's National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP).

Watch a video clip of a Reality Tour presentation:

One community’s experience

One organization that recently decided to add the Reality Tour to its educational efforts is Wyoming Valley Alcohol and Drug Services (WVADS), located in northeast Pennsylvania. Carmen Ambrosino, Chief Executive Officer of WVADS, says it has proven to be one of the most effective educational tools his organization has ever used. “I’ve been doing this work for 37 years now and I must say that the Reality Tour is one of the most powerful of all prevention programs that we’ve ever done,” says Ambrosino. “It’s very poignant, it’s very vivid, realistic, and the content and the comprehension of the program to clearly get across where the journey of addiction takes one is real critical.”

The program is not designed to be presented from a stage in front of a seated audience. Instead, it is best experienced in settings that allow small groups or parents and teens to move through a series of spaces where each element of the action takes place. WVADS received permission to use a county office building to stage it, which allowed the organization to stage the different vignettes in separate rooms which the audience moved through as the action unfolded.

As for the “cast,” for that Ambrosino turned to people in his own community who knew the consequences of drug abuse firsthand and could accurately portray the action of the various scenes — his own staff of drug counselors, aided by members of local law enforcement and the business community. “One of our young counselors was the fellow that they kind of arrested in the room and the crowd had no idea that this was going to be taking place. They manacled him, cuffed him, read him his rights, and then we said, ‘Welcome to the Reality Tour. You’ve just gone through the first scene.’ And then we followed that to the jail, on to the overdose scene, and then on to the death — the funeral scene — where literally every child and adult in attendance walked through that scene and signed the guest book and paid their respects at the casket and went through the whole grieving process with the actors, which are our staff, our counselors and prevention workers.”

This expertise and experience is vital to the presentation’s authenticity, as the actual dialogue is unscripted and therefore largely improvised by the presentation’s cast. “It was more of an improv,” explains Ambrosino. “They understood what the parameters were. The overdose scene is about five to seven minutes in length. So when we met with the physicians and EMTs and nurses, what we did is basically say, ‘What happens? What’s the language that occurs at bedside when you’re trying to save a human being from dying of an overdose?’ And if you stick to that and you do that, that’s what we’re looking for.”

Building stronger community bonds

The exercise of researching precisely how to stage each scene not only provides participants with a realistic experience of each event, it also builds stronger connections between drug prevention organizations and the local police, medical and business community. “We’re talking about some large health systems that have bought into us and have said, ‘If you need our physicians, if you need our nurses, if you need our EMTs, if you need our ambulance, if you need our gurney, if you need our crash cart, you’ve got all that, Carmen.’ Law enforcement has basically said, ‘If you need our police officers, we’re there to assist you.’ And the funeral home in the area, P.J. Adonizio, said, ‘Anytime you need a prop or a casket and/or a sign-in book, etc., you can count on us. We will be there because we see the benefits of this type of program.’”

The Reality Tour is aimed primarily at a young teen audience, in the hope that participants will get the message at an early age before they’ve begun using. “Some national statistics show that one out of eighteen 6th graders uses marijuana; one out of six 7th graders uses it,” says Ambrosino. “So we believe that the critical age for drug prevention education is the elementary school, if you will, on to middle school.”

Not 'scared-straight,' but simply the facts

Ambrosino is careful to point out that although the program presents realistic depictions of some of drug abuse’s most devastating consequences, it is not a ‘scared-straight’ type of program, and has been delicately tuned to present events as neutrally and authentically as possible. “It’s a reality tour. It’s the reality of it,” Ambrosino explains. “I think to create a situation where you’re actually scaring individuals by using inappropriateness of data or misinformation would be a scared-straight type of program. This instead is a reality. This is a journey along the different points — the destinations that drugs take us: the jails, law enforcement interaction, ER rooms, and again unfortunately in some cases, death. It doesn’t use an approach whereby the information is out of the ordinary. It’s very simple, right to the point. ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ — that whole ‘KISS’ philosophy, if you will. This is the hard, cold reality, the underbelly of the beast of what could happen if we use drugs and alcohol.

“And I think that Norma has struggled at times — Norma Norris — with some undue criticism by a small group of people who say, ‘Well, this represents the old scared-straight programs.’ When in fact, it does not, because, one, 37 years into this profession and I never would condone that. But secondly, I really think if people had an opportunity to clearly understand how these components really interact with each other, it’s done in such a way that it’s just a good educational experience.”

For her part, Norris points out that although the Reality Tour does use simulated jail scenes, it is in strict compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act which prohibits juvenile offenders from having sight or sound of a prisoner. Candle, Inc. strictly enforces this provision in its licensing contracts for Reality Tour sites that use an authentic jail or prison.

Norrris also cites research that proves the efficacy of the Reality Tour’s dramatic enactment approach and clearly differentiates it from ‘scared-straight’ types of programs. Dr. Janice Pringle of the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and the Reality Tour’s principal researcher states, “There is a growing body of literature pertaining to the use of dramatic enactments for drug and alcohol prevention and other health-related behaviors (see Stephens-Hernandez, et. al., Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, Vol. 2, No. 11,2007). The use of dramatic enactment as a prevention strategy should not be confused with more direct and confrontational strategies, such as those associated with deterrence programs like ‘scared straight.’”

For more information on the Reality Tour and how to present it in your community, visit Candle, Inc. at www.candleinc.org.

To listen to the complete interview with Carmen Ambrosino, click on the audio icon above. Or, continue reading for a complete, edited, written transcript.

 



BHC: Tell us about this Reality Tour.

CA: Well, I’ve been doing this work for 37 years now and I must say that the Reality Tour is one of the most powerful of all prevention programs that we’ve ever done. And those who attended — about 125 — have also stated that. It’s very poignant, it’s very vivid, realistic, and the content and the comprehension of the program to clearly get across where the journey of addiction takes one is real critical.

BHC: Who developed the program?

CA: A young lady from Butler County, Pennsylvania, out by the Pittsburgh area, Norma Norris, who runs a group by the name of Candleinc.org and she is the originator, the author of the Reality Tour. This was the first time it’s been done in northeastern Pennsylvania, so we’re excited about it and about the potential to continue it. [Ed. Note: The Reality Tour has also been presented in Pike and Wayne counties in northeastern Pennsylvania.]

BHC: Now, for those who are unfamiliar with where you are located, give us a little description. I assume you’re nowhere near Wyoming.

CA: That’s correct. We are about two hours north of Philadelphia and about an hour and forty-five minutes from New York City, right nestled about thirty minutes from the Pocono Mountains. Scranton, Pennsylvania would be our neighbor to the north, about ten miles.

BHC: And how is the situation in your area with teen drug abuse and addiction?

CA: Well, that’s an interesting question. One of the things that we’ve done and still continue to do is to measure data from our area. There are 479 overdose deaths in the county in which we work, Luzerne County, in the past nine years. That I think is just unbelievable. Heroin is our number-two drug of choice in this area after alcohol. The age of experimentation when I started with this agency back in 1973 was about 17, and it’s now down to 10.5 years of age for experimentation. The number of DUI deaths, over nine years, is about 145 in this area. So this is a really hotbed unfortunately for drug and alcohol issues.

BCH: Tell us how your connection with this Reality Tour exhibit — if that’s the right term — tell us how it came about. Did you approach these folks to develop it or did they come to you with it as an already developed package?

CA: We had heard for the past few years about the efficacy of the Reality Tour and the need for us to at least kind of investigate it. And again, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve been around for 37 years and we have a lot of prevention education. We do about 14,000 hours in public schools in this area with a staff of about 12 prevention specialists and about another 600 community programs. When this was highly recommended, we decided to go out to actually go through the tour. So we contacted Norma Norris and asked her if we could come out to Pittsburgh and literally go through the three-hour tour and walked away just saying, “Wow, this has some real merit.”

And we bought it. The Luzerne Foundation and the United Way were kind enough to give us a grant of $3,500 and we purchased the copyright. [Ed. Note: Presenting organizations purchase the Reality Tour Program Model. The copyright remains with Candle, Inc.] And we decided that Monday, January 25, 2010, was going to be our first event. And as I said, the reaction of those in attendance from the children (and there were about 80 young people from 5th through 8th grades) and their parents that went through the first tour — the reaction and the cooperation we got from law enforcement, Geisinger Medical Center, EMTs and physicians and a local funeral parlor and many other entities was very heartwarming. And next week, as a matter of fact, they’re going to have a follow-up meeting to discuss how we can carry this on.

BHC: So the Reality Tour itself has been in existence for a couple of years and it sounds like it’s available for any organization that wants to kind of lease it or, as you say, to purchase a copyright and present it.

CA: I think I might have said earlier candleinc.com, it’s candleinc.org and Norma Norris would be more than happy to discuss it with individuals. In the Butler County, Pittsburgh, area of Pennsylvania, this is done on a monthly basis and has been done monthly now for several years. And one of the things that they frown upon is to move it around to destinations.

So they’re really encouraging us to try to identify a permanent site. So we are meeting with local realtors two weeks from today in an effort to see if they might be interested in possibly leasing a building for $1 per year to our agency and if so, then we will have a permanent residence for the Reality Tour that the community can identify with.

BHC: And where did you hold the session that you did in January?

CA: The West Pittston Borough Building, which is one of the municipalities in Luzerne County. The Mayor of West Pittston, Mr. Goldsworthy has been really instrumental on task forces and has been a real activist. He suggested that we consider the Borough Building and when we went out to analyze it, each room lent itself to the tour.

What’s interesting was the cooperation I got from my own staff. One of our young counselors was the fellow that they kind of arrested in the room and the crowd had no idea that this was going to be taking place. [They] manacled him, cuffed him, read him his rights, and then we talked about welcome to the Reality Tour. You’ve just gone through the first scene. And then we followed that to the jail, on to the overdose scene, and then on to the death, the funeral scene, where literally every child and adult in attendance walked through that scene and signs the guest book and pays their respects at the casket and goes through the whole grieving process with the actors, which are our staff, our counselors and prevention workers.

The other unique part of the Reality Tour is a PowerPoint presentation, which is very artfully done and captures informationally the physiological and psychological complications that come with drug use.

BHC: So this is not a presentation that observers would sit in an auditorium and watch up on stage, this is very interactive in a way that — if you’ll excuse the analogy — sounds a bit like a fun house.

CA: That’s a great point that you made about the small group. The Reality Tour is designed for small groups no larger than anywhere from 75 to 100. In fact they discourage large-assembly presentations and that’s why the frequency of the program is real critical. It does allow the interaction. There is a lot of interaction, again, throughout the program and there is an opportunity for people to really bond, if you will, with the cast and with all the informational pieces of it.

We did something neat afterwards by having some pizza and soda — ‘pop’ for those who understand that word! And we really kind of critiqued what the experience was of going through that. And from parent to parent and child to child, the response was that every single child needs to go through this experience and very clearly understand that this is the journey that drugs will take you on.

BHC: Carmen, many years ago as I recall, drug education experts decided to kind of get away from — for lack of a better word — scare tactics and focus education efforts more on the straight facts on drugs. Does this represent somewhat of a turning away from that more dispassionate approach?

CA: Well it’s a reality tour; it’s the reality of it. I think to create a situation where you’re actually scaring individuals by using inappropriateness of data or misinformation would be a ‘scared-straight’ type of program. This instead is a reality. This is a journey along the different points — the destinations that drugs take us, the jails, law enforcement interaction, ER rooms, and again unfortunately in some cases, death.

So when I say it’s tastefully done, very artfully done, it doesn’t use an approach whereby the information is out of the ordinary. It’s very simple, right to the point. ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ — that whole KISS philosophy, if you will. This is the hard, cold reality, the underbelly of the beast of what could happen if we use drugs and alcohol.

And I think that Norma has struggled at times — Norma Norris — with some undue criticism by a small group of people who say, “Well, this represents the old ‘scared-straight’ programs.” When in fact it does not, because, one, 37 years into this profession and I never would condone that. But secondly, I really think if people had an opportunity to clearly understand how these components really interact with each other, it’s done in such a way that it’s just a good educational experience.

BHC: Now you said that it was members of your own staff that made up the cast of this. Help us understand how this works. Are you essentially buying a script or is there more involved?

CA: Yes, you’re buying actually a script [Ed. Note: The presentation is not formally scripted but instead described as part of the Program Model. Presenting organizations create their own wording.] that you need to follow and the flow of the scenes. What it doesn’t do is basically tell you how to do an arrest and the words but it tells you there should be an arrest and it should be drug-related. The jail scene, because of the ‘scared-straight’ legislation across the United States, you’re not able to have any sight or sound so you can’t put the children in an institution where there are adult inmates that they can hear or see. So the jail cell is simply a barren jail cell, which they can walk into and get the feeling of what a jail cell feels like.

The overdose is the same way. In the first scene we had counselors that were dealing with the police and the overdose, the family members who came to bedside as the physicians and nurses and EMTs struggled to save the life — the mother and father and cousin — were portrayed by staff of our agency, who then ultimately became the ones who were standing next to the casket as the ones who were actually grieving the loss of their loved ones.

So throughout the scenes, there were not professional actors and actresses. They were staff who took a look at to what some of the script was basically saying and then they brought it to life.

BHC: And as you were planning the staging of this, did you develop your own internal script or was it more of an improv kind of a thing among your people?

CA: It was more of an improv. They understood what the parameters were. The overdose scene is about five to seven minutes in length. So when we met with the physicians and EMTs and nurses, what we did is basically say, “What happens? What’s the language that occurs at bedside when you’re trying to save a human being from dying of an overdose?” And if you stick to that and you do that, that’s what we’re looking for. So we did have some rehearsals, I might add, on the weekend of the presentation. We had from 12:00 to 5:00 a set-up day where we made sure all the scenes and all the props were in place and the people very clearly understood their roles.

And then the next day we had a rehearsal where we literally from the top we walked through spontaneously what a scene may look like. But the beauty of the Reality Tour is that if we did that two or three nights in a row there would be some wiggle room, if you will, in terms of how they portray it.

BHC: So this takes some work on the part of the organization that wants to present it. This is not a simple plug-and-play kind of a demonstration.

CA: It does take some work to understand all the components of it and once that’s understood — I think we’re at a point even after one showing that we would be more than comfortable to put that on with some frequency without a great deal of effort, because we have all the players now identified and all the commitments from these partnership groups in our area. We’re talking about some large health systems that have bought into us and have said, “If you need our physicians, if you need our nurses, if you need our EMTs, if you need our ambulance, if you need our gurney, if you need our crash cart, you’ve got all that, Carmen.” Law enforcement has basically said, “If you need our police officers, we’re there to assist you.” And the funeral home in the area, PJ Adonizio, said, “Anytime you need a prop or a casket and/or a sign-in book, etc., you can count on us, we will be there because we see the benefits of this type of program.”

So I think it becomes a little easier as you move along.

BHC: It sounds as though it takes a little bit of effort upfront as well to get the whole community involved. It sounds as if it’s as interactive for the folks presenting it as it is for the kids who are experiencing it.

CA: Yes. What we did, Dennis, in order to kick this off, is that every school district that we serve — which are 12 public school districts — has a full-time prevention worker from our staff. We charged each of them with the responsibility of establishing ATOD — Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs — teams at schools that were comprised of 15 middle-school kids between fifth and eighth grades, And the first inaugural project that they would be involved with was the Reality Tour. So the audiences were these newly identified action teams — ATOD action teams — and their parents.

We did it with two of the schools and now there are ten more, so we have a commitment to do ten more Reality Tours so we can get all these other ATOD action teams the benefit of going through this. And then we will open it up to the general community.

BHC: And this is intended for students of any kind, not necessarily only for those who may have already been showing some signs of a problem with drugs.

CA: That is correct. Some national statistics show that one out of eighteen 6th graders uses marijuana; one out of six 7th graders uses it. So we believe that the critical age for drug prevention education is the elementary school, if you will, on to middle school. [That’s] not saying we have written off the high school — the secondary — because we have a lot of prevention which we have aimed at that particular grade level.

BHC: Well, great! Carmen, anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention before we close?

CA: No, I just want to thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about this program and again for your real commitment to drug prevention.

BHC: And for folks who want to get some more information about the Reality Tour, again, what was that website you mentioned?

CA: They can go to candleinc.org.

BHC: Super. Carmen, thank you very much.

CA: A real pleasure. Thank you.

By Madeline Izzo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Butler County founder of an interactive drug-abuse prevention program has been asked to bring her program to Kansas City, Mo., for some national exposure.

Norma Norris, director of Candle Inc., which stands for Community Action Network for Drug-Free Lifestyle Empowerment, has been invited to be a presenter at the 31st annual Neighborhoods USA Conference in Kansas City May 24-27.

Her award-winning Reality Tour program takes 10- to 18-year-olds and their parents through the downward spiral of heroin addiction, using recorded narrative, a prison tour and staged scenes.

"We really strive to be innovative in drug-abuse prevention," Ms. Norris said.

The nonprofit Candle Inc. has developed a model for the Reality Tour that can be used in any community and is geared for groups of up to 70 people.

The tour is in various stages of development in 12 Pennsylvania communities, and the first out-of-state Reality Tour is set to start this year near Cleveland in the Painesville Township School District.

The program received the 2005 Acts of Caring Award from the national Association of Counties.

Although she was inspired to create Reality Tour when she heard about the extent of heroin-addiction while working at a local radio station in 2003, she has expanded the program to include the dangers of more than 14 drugs.

Ms. Norris' invitation to Kansas City came about through word-of-mouth and the Internet.

"Someone in Arkansas saw our Web site and spoke with somebody in Kansas City," she said.

Ms. Norris has not advertised the program, but she did give a presentation in Harrisburg for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency in December.

A community organization in Mercer County recently bought the Reality Tour, which costs $2,500 for a five-year lease, plus annual $250 updating fees.

"Once you see it, you'll never forget it. It's a very effective tool for drug awareness and prevention," said Kerry Howell, team coordinator for Target Area Local Leaders, or TALL, in Sharon and Farrell.

Ms. Howell heard about it through the Urban League and attended the tour in October. Reality Tour takes three hours and requires 24 volunteers.

"The effect it has on the children -- the emergency room scene and the funeral scene -- are so powerful," she said.

The Sharon/Farrell Weed and Seed TALL team has invited community professionals to participate in the Reality Tour on Thursday. The first tour for children is April 27 and tours are scheduled to continue monthly. Reality Tour locations include the Butler YWCA, the Allegheny County Jail, Wayne County Honesdale YMCA, Armstrong County Jail in Kittanning, Bedford County Jail, Lawrence County Government Center in New Castle and Ellwood City municipal building.

So far, 34 tours have been given, and in Butler County alone, more than 2,000 people have taken the tour.

"People get very emotional. We show the consequences [of drug addiction]. I don't believe anyone cannot believe the consequences after seeing this program," Ms. Norris said.

Candle Inc. received funding from the state Department of Community and Economic Development last year for a three-year initiative to reach fifth-graders.

"We want to be able to serve every fifth-grade student in Pennsylvania," Ms. Norris said.

She said she hopes to start the program for fifth-graders this summer or fall.

BVA parents push for drug program

By Jeremy Sellew

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, 12:26 a.m.  TRIB LIVE

What began as a run-of-the-mill school board meeting quickly turned into a heart-wrenching plea from parents asking the district to do more to fight the growing drug epidemic throughout the community.

After hearing about a school district plan to create its own drug summit proposal, a standing-room-only crowd of parents urged the district to do more.

Parent Valerie Homanics delivered a tear-jerking, emotional narrative about her son, who is a recovering drug addict.

“My son was a good boy,” Homanics told the board during its Monday meeting. “I couldn't have asked for a better son growing up. I wanted 12 more just like him.”

She said her son decided to continue playing hockey at California University of Pennsylvania and held a part-time job at a grocery store, which taught him responsibility.

“Then one day, my son made a stupid choice to experiment,” she said with a quiver in her voice. “I knew high schools and colleges had alcohol and marijuana problems. Drugs were all around him. I did not realize how bad the drug problem really was in our community and in our schools. I never knew the depth of the hardcore drugs, but I do know now ... because I was forced to know it. I thought it was something that only happened to children from troubled homes. It's a stigma I regret feeling.”

Homanics described her mental and physical exhaustion and how she blamed herself as a parent.

“I know now, it was not my fault as a parent,” the mother of three added. “No matter how dangerous, how illegal or immoral, drugs owned my son's soul.”

Homanics deflected blame from schools, but urged that BVA become part of the solution to the growing problem.

“My other son brought home 12 of these,” she said holding up a bundle of red ribbons, which represent Red Ribbon Week and are emblazoned with a drug prevention and assistance hotline phone number.

“I asked him why and he told me that 11 other kids didn't want them. That's 11 parents that didn't get that number. That's a number that I wish I had when I needed it. What if those parents end up needing it? Educating the parents on what to look for is just as important. I don't want one person in this room to go through what my family went through.

“My daughter witnessed an overdose in the back of a car while working at McDonalds,” she added. “The (Graham Street) park in North Belle Vernon is now home to drug dealers, and I nearly stepped on a needle at the post office. This problem is everywhere.”

Homanics and Celeste Palamara touted The Reality Tour, and urged the board members to look into hosting the drug-prevention program.

“The Belle Vernon Rotary Club pledged $1,500 to bring the program to the area,” Palamara said. “It costs $3,500 with a $500 annual renewal fee. I don't think this is unreasonable when it comes to protecting our kids. And there is a grant available out there to pay for this.”

Palamara described the program, which is for children ages 10 and up and their parents.

“A child cannot attend without a parent,” Palamara said. “There's a peer-pressure scene, an arrest, an overdose scene, a party scene and a funeral scene included. Kids and parents both are forced to face the facts of what's going on with this problem. There are sights in the program that they need to see. It's not a glorious lifestyle. Every program that is currently going on, there is a waiting list for and I'm sure it would be the same way here.”

Board member John Nusser liked what he heard of the program.

“This looks like what we need to do,” Nusser sad. “Some of what you are talking about, with the visuals and pictures, that's powerful. Let's scare these kids. Let's scare them to death.”

David Boff, a father of five and a coach in the community, also endorsed the idea.

“Kids need to see the visual aids,” he said. “They practice basketball, they practice football ... we need to practice drug prevention, too.

“My kids need to see this. I need to see this.”

A Reality Tour program will be presented Thursday in Mt. Pleasant. Board member Cathy Michener plans on attend.

“I will go for informational purposes and report back,” Michener told the board. “Let me see what it is all about. I have five children of my own, so this is something I want to see.”

Director Joe Grata said he supports the idea and is eager to hear Michener's report.

“Perhaps we can direct the superintendent to reinvigorate this idea,” Grata said. “Let's hear the report and deliver it to us as a whole. If these people are as committed as they suggest, I think they should be welcomed to attend any proactive meetings we can undertake.

“We can deliberate this point after Cathy's report.”

Shara Zupanc, a physical education teacher in the district and a basketball coach at Frazier High School, believes the program is worth the cost.

“I think this is such a huge issue,” Zupanc said. “Me in the classroom, I'm thinking, ‘What can I do? How can we present this in a better way?'

“To say this is too graphic ... nothing is too graphic for kids anymore. They see worse things on TV every night. It's really something we need to look into. It's a community effort. If we can work together to provide this service, we can be role models for other districts and communities.”

Prior to Homanics' story, Jason Boone, principal of grades 10 through 12, discussed plans for a BVA Drug Summit Day.

While more details will follow in the coming months, Boone said the program will be similar to drug summits held in neighboring Washington County communities.

“We want to localize it more to the Belle Vernon area,” said Boone, who added that he has been in contact with Rostraver Township police, local magistrates, as well as BVA Drug Task Force chairman Jason Demko.

“The biggest thing we want to do is bring up the middle school kids in the morning for a session and then have the high school kids in a separate session so we can get as many students as we can involved,” he said.

Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jsellew@tribweb.com or 724-684-2667.

Anti-drug support group brings Reality Tour to Blairsville

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By Greg Reinbold

Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

The Blairsville Support Group Against Drugs will be collaborating with the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission to bring members of the community face-to-face with the realities of drug addiction.

Beginning Oct. 15, the Blairsville support group will operate the Candle, Inc. Reality Tour program under the Drug and Alcohol Commission's license using community volunteers.

“We're partnering with them to help them get up and going in the Reality Tour,” Drug and Alcohol commission deputy director Carrie Bence said. “They felt that there was a need in that area specifically so they could tap into Blairsville-Saltsburg School District, WyoTech, more that end of the county.”

After the first year, the Blairsville group plans to purchase its own license for the copyrighted program, which costs $3,000 for the initial license and materials $500 per year for license renewal and updates according to Bence.

Reality Tour presentations in Blairsville are scheduled for the third Wednesday of October, November, January, February, March and April, according to Blairsville Support Group Against Drugs organizer Karen McMillan.

““It speaks for itself,” McMillan said of the tour. “It's well-known in our area, anybody who's ever been to it, even recovering addicts, people who were actively addicted, that took the time and went to those, and it was life-changing.”

The Drug and Alcohol Commission offers its Reality Tour on the first Wednesday of each month from August through May (except January) at the Indiana County Jail.

The tours feature dramatic scenes portraying drug addiction, including representations of peer pressure, arrest, overdose and a funeral.

The Blairsville group has attracted about 18 volunteers to present the tour, but is actively seeking more help. McMillan said students can earn community service hours toward graduation requirements by helping out with the tour.

“We have some students from Blairsville High School that are actually volunteering,” she said. “We have people in recovery that are volunteering, parents who have lost their kids, people who just come to our monthly meetings and a couple others.

“We are able to sign off on hours for them for community service, so if we can just get them involved even to help with registration at the door, setting up, tearing down, anything like that, we're able to give them hours for community service. We're trying to get the kids involved as much as we can.”

Local businesses have contributed donations and props for the tour already, McMillan said, and the group is seeking monetary donations to put toward purchasing the Reality Tour license and materials next summer.

McMillan said the Blairsville Reality Tour will be able to accommodate between 30 and 50 individuals compared to the 18-person limit on tours at the jail, and hopes the tours in Blairsville are packed each month.

“There's parents out there that probably don't even know their kids are addicts,” she said. “I didn't even know my son was. I knew he had an alcohol problem; I never in my life thought I'd ever get a call he overdosed on heroin... Way too many parents still think they don't need to get educated about it and it will never happen to them.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 105 people in the United States die each day as a result of drug overdose and 6,748 are treated in emergency departments for misuse or abuse of drugs. The rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation more than doubled between 1999 and 2010.

Reality Tour participants must register at least one week prior to the tour. Registration forms are available through the Blairsville Support Group Against Drugs Facebook group, the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission website or by calling 724-549-2679.

The tour is open to children age 10 or older accompanied by a parent or guardian. Tour participants will meet at the Blairsville Community Center by 5:45 p.m. on tour dates and are instructed not to bring personal belongings other than coats and keys on the tour.

The Blairsville Support Group Against Drugs meets at 6 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month in the Blairsville Borough building.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or greinbold@tribweb.com.


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Child Death Review Team presents drug prevention program in Milford

The Child Death Review Team presented The Reality Tour at the First Presbyterian Church in Milford on Saturday.

The Child Death Review Team is a group of community-based organizations that review all deaths in Pike County of residents between birth and age 21. They then determine ways to prevent future deaths.

In 2008, the Death Review Team began the Reality Tour. The Reality Tour is a drug prevention program aimed at helping Pike County youth and parents learn about the dangers of various drugs. It has the support of Pike county commissioners, district attorneys and the coroner's office. Milford Fire and Ambulance, numerous non-profit organizations and local businesses also support the Reality Tour.

The tour began with a six-scene dramatic presentation performed by a group of child and adult volunteers. The play followed the life of a fictitious teen and his downward spiral into a world of drug usage.

"In the past, the focus of the play was on heroin," said Jill Gamboni, director of the Reality Tour and member of the Death Review Team. "Going forward we will adjust the program to put an emphasis on prescription drugs."

The play began with a peer pressure scene followed by an arrest scene inside the church's social hall. The audience then followed the play from room to room, going outside for one scene and to Milford Fire & Ambulance for another. Other scenes included depictions of jail, overdose, the emergency room and a funeral.

The theme throughout the play was "I'm Just Like You." The theme was used to show that addiction can happen to anyone and the thought that "It won't happen to me" can be inaccurate. "I'm just like you" was reinforced by a CD that played the teen's internal dialogue at many of the scenes.

After the play, children, parents and volunteers were brought back to the social hall for presentations from law enforcement, the county coroner's office and recovering drug addict Matt Walsh.

A law enforcement officer discussed penalties for being caught with or using drugs while Walsh told his own story about how drugs affected his life.

Walsh spoke candidly about his early life, his use of gateway drugs and becoming a drug dealer. He explained how peer pressure led him to use marijuana and alcohol, his family history with addiction and the way it affected his education and family life.

"I had enough of the life I had been living," he said. "It had become completely unmanageable."

This was Walsh's second speaking appearance at the Reality Tour and he explained why it was so important for him to tell his story.

"The example of the tour and seeing the hope in these kids is worth it," he stated. "It also helps me because I know I won't leave here and go to a dealer."

He was modest about the length of his sobriety and chose only to say, "Every day I'm sober is a gift from God."

Each speaker answered audience questions and make the presentation interactive so parents and children could take full advantage of the open forum.

The Reality Tour is a honest look into what a life of drug and alcohol addiction can lead to. It will return next year, and the Death Team members said they hope to make the tour a requirement for anyone in the county on youth probation.