By SARAH ZAPLOTSKY
Eagle Staff Writer BUTLER - The woman in the purple coat shook as she watched her son die. At the funeral, trails of mascara-laden tears streaked down her cheeks. She clutched her husband's hand, trying to make sense of the death. The woman, Jan David, may have only been acting, but her performance was so realistic it jolted the audience of this months Reality Tour, a dramatic presentation of the life of a heroin addict.
STEVEN DIETZ/SPECIAL TO THE EAGLE
In a mock emergency room scene at the Butler County YMCA, nurse Hally Callithen comforts Jeffery and Jan David, who find that efforts to save their son from a drug overdose were not successful. The scene is part of the Reality Tour, a dramatic presentation of the life of a herion addict. The tour is an effort by reality Tour, a nonprofit group that supports actions of community drug agencies, to combat the ongoing heroin problem in the county.
Faced with the continuing problem of heroin use in the county, the Reality Tour, a non-profit group that supports actions of community drug agencies, organized the program under the direction of board member Norma Norris. The tour is at the Butler County YMCA and begins with a typical teen skit depicting peer presure that can lead students to experiment with drugs.
The tour then becomes decidedly realistic.
The group leaves the YMCA and takes a short walk to the Butler County Prison. While en route, the audience witnesses a mock arrest of a heroin addict.
During the Jan.19 tour, all stared as a city police officer threw the suspect against the squad car and handcuffed him. The audience walked by, some unsure whether the incident was staged.
Norris, creator of the program, said the purpose of the dramatic scenes is to show families, especially children ages 10 to 13, the ugly life of a heroin addict. Audience sizes are keep small, only 70 people at most, to give the group more flexibility and create an intimate setting.
Norris said people experience more of an emotional impact in smaller groups with fewer distractions. Since the monthly programs began in June, more than 500 people have participated.
"I thought if children saw what the life was really like, they would not become involved with it." she said.
Children and parents get a strong dose of reality when the doors of the county prison clang shut behind them. Once inside, the prisoner booking procedures are explained and the interlopers are shown jail cells, a visitation room, and even a padded isolation room.
Returning to the YMCA, the group is ushered into a mock emergency room, complete with heart monitor and a blue-lipped victem. The parents rush into the room, only to watch as their son is pronounced dead.
The audience then shares the parents' grief at the funeral home, where friends pay their respects in front of a closed casket.
Some audience members were visibly shaken after the tour, blowing their noses and holding back tears.
The reality of the tour was confirmed by a county Detective Pat Cannon, who is the coordinator of the county's drug task force. He said heroin use apears to be leveling off from previous years. Last year, the task force made between 90 and 100 drug related arrests.
However, he said heroin is still "an epidemic" in the county because it is being used by a younger age group, specifically teenagers.
He told the Reality Tour audience that unlike drug waves in the past, few heroin dealers are from outside the county.
"We've had to completely shift how we do investigations. Our kids are selling to our kids." He said.
According to county coroner's reports, in 2002, 12 people died of heroin use. The average age of death was 26, and the youngest was 16.
There were 13 drug-related deaths in 2003, at an average age of 25. All but one were male, and the youngest was 18.
2 tell their story
Cannon did not speak long before he introduced Kristina, 19, and Kelli, both recovering heroin addicts who speak to groups about their addiction. The women were introduced by their first names only. Both grew up in the county and began exper- menting with drugs and alcohol while in high school. Kristina first started drinking when she was 12 years old. A neighbor she was baby- sitting for would pay her with beer and then watch her get drunk for fun. Her porcelain - like skin belie the fact her drinking eventually led to drug use and heroin, which is an extremely addictive opiate. She said she stole money from family and freinds to support her habit and was eventually arrested. "You do anything you have to do to get your high." Because of her drug-related crimes, Kristina is on ten years' probation.
As part of the Reality Tour for parents and their children, Knoch High School student Josh Falcon, 15, portrays a heroin addict being arrested by a Butler police officer in the Butler parking garage. Since the monthly program began in June, more than 500 people have viewed the dramatic skit, which is intended to show the ugly life of a heroin addict.
After abusing a buffet of drugs, through her late teens and early 20's, Kelli discovered heroin and the euphoric high experienced when the drug is injected into the bloodstream. Her habit expolded to 20 to 30 doses, or stamps, a day, which cost her between $200 and $300. She said at one time during a two-month period, she charged more than $18,000 to her mother's credit card.
Eventually, she found herself homeless and penniless in Washington Pa., where she was willing to do anything to feed her habit.
"Being an addict is a full time job." she said.
Kelli is on probation for 16 years.
The women find it therapeutic to tell others their experiences. They agreed they wanted to help others avoid mistakes, but the storytelling also keeps the reality of usage foremost in their minds.
"It helps keep the whole thing fresh." said Kelli.
That is important, said Cannon, since the women have an 85 percent chance of relapsing.
If either are arrested again, she will be jailed in a state, not county facility.
In spite of the perceived leveling off of the overall drug use problem, Cannon said it is still dire.
Cannon said he favors random drug testing in schools as long as assurances could be made that testing would not target one group of students over another. Although he believes county school districts still aren't doing enough to protect students, he said they are doing better than they had in previous years.
"They didn't know this was coming; no one knew. We certainly were caught off guard." he said.
Butler School District has a long-standing drug and alcohol programs that have been augmented by more aggressive measures to counteract the drug problem in recent years.
According to Jim Allen, junior high school principal, three to four times a year state police canine units sweep the district with dogs trained to find illegal substances. In the three years the sweeps have been conducted, no illegal substances have been found.
He said parents generally cooperate with district programs designed to identify students who may be using drugs, although many initially deny their children are involved.
"Some throw up a wall, but many are now more supportive." he said.
Diane Snyder, the school board vice president, said community awareness of the heroin problem seems to have increased, and parents are now more willing to work with school officials.
Prior to 2003, I sat in expulsion hearings where the parents said they have held parties at their houses and did drugs with the kids. And those parents couldn't figure out why we had a problem with that." she said.
Families still suffer
The Reality Tour also depicts family anguish that is all too real.
Shirley Domhoff, whose daughter is a recovering heroin addict, lives with the pain everyday. Like Kelli and Kristine, Domhoff's daughter began experimenting with alcohol, pain pills and marijuana in high school, where she once was a good student and athlete.
Domhoff, who requested her daughter not be named in this article, said she initially blamed herself when she found out about her daughter's usage just before the Christmas of 1999.
"It hasn't been a fun ride." she said, her face etched with pain.
Since her discovery, Domhoff has joined a support group for parents of addicts. She said there is a limit to the amount of help that can be given.
"Parents can only do so much. Schools can only do so much." she said.
Nancy Edwards agreed. She is a volunteer with Reality Tour, and her son, Mark, is a recovering heroin addict.
Edwards said Mark was 15 when she found out about his heroin use. She said she helped him at her home for five days as his body went through withdrawal, an especially painful experience for heroin addicts. Edwards bluntly described her son's struggle with heroin, her brown eyes full of sorrow.
She said she would continue to help him, but the decision to quit was ultimately his.
"I didn't show him how (to use drugs)." she said. "He chose. It was his choice."
It is this choice that Reality Tour aims to help parents and children understand.
And the word seems to be spreading.
Norris said the tours have filled. As of december, there was a two-month waiting period to get on the audience list. The next tours are Feb. 16 and March 15.
Norris said she thinks the tours have been successful because the problem is widespread and it cuts across all social and economic barriers.
She said the demand for a place on the tour is high because people are looking for information and help.
"The success of this is a blessing and a curse at the same time." she said.
To learn more
Where you can get help:
Ministries of Eden, 724-285-5842
Irene Stacy CMH Center, 724-287-0791
Gateway North Hills, 724-776-4844
Ellen O'Brien Gaiser Addiction Center, 724-285-2297 or 724-287-8205
Family First Resource Center, 724-284-4357
Butler County Drug Task Force, 724-284-5225