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By Denise Bonura
The Record Herald

Chambersburg, Pa. - Rebecca’s dramatized “life with drugs” ended with the flat beep of a heart monitor and her parents’ suffering at her funeral — and for the rest of their lives.

Eighteen-year-old Rebecca Etter of Chambersburg played the role of a drug addict Tuesday night in the Franklin County Courthouse as part of the county’s Reality Tour program, a national project of Candle Inc., launched in November 2006. The tour is designed to make area youths think about their choices and stay away from drugs.

The program began with Rebecca sitting in the jury assembly room with her “parents” and participants in the program as volunteers announced that no one was allowed to leave. 

She got up and tried to run out the door when Officer Michael Taylor with the Chambersburg Police Department tackled her to the ground. Officer Taylor handcuffed a kicking, screaming Rebecca as he found drugs in her back pocket.

Becoming ‘popular’

As Rebecca was being “arraigned,” county drug and alcohol prevention specialist Lauri Davis played a narrative for the teens watching the skits with wide eyes.

“I used to play soccer and play with my brother,” Rebecca said. “I used to be just like you.”

Rebecca said she was never popular in school until the day she was invited to a party and began smoking marijuana to be cool around her new “friends.”

The habit starts

One night, Rebecca was approached by a boy who gave her a blue plastic bag with the word “dynamite,” written on it. She thought he was a friend, since he let her try heroin for free.

But, later she said she realized he was just looking for another customer. When the addiction set in, she was using more and more just to stay well.

“Now, I can’t make it without a hit,” she said.

The participating teens and their parents watched from a holding cell as Rebecca had her mug shot taken in an orange jump suit and her fingerprints recorded. She claimed, through tears, that the drugs weren’t hers.

Bailed out

Rebecca’s “father” bailed her out of jail. She said he didn’t have enough money to send her to rehab and she soon began hanging with the wrong crowd. Her cousin also used drugs, and she was happy she could once again fool her parents.

Rebecca’s cousin took her to a party where she took some potent drugs. The drugs were so potent she was sent to the hospital, where she died of an overdose.

She told the audience in her narrative that the lying was over and her so-called “friends” wouldn’t tell anyone how she died for fear of getting into trouble. She also said her “friends” will stop talking about her in a few months, but her parents will have to live with her bad decisions for the rest of their lives.

Growing problem

Officer Taylor said he has been a police officer for a good number of years and has seen the toll that drugs can take.

“I’ve seen all kinds of things,” he told the group. “You only hear about a tenth of what police see on a regular basis. People who are involved with drugs don’t always act in a normal manner and can’t always control themselves. I see it on a weekly basis and I see the same people over and over and over again because once you start doing drugs, you can’t get out of it.”

He added that there are county officers that only investigate drug cases.

“That tells you what kind of problem we have,” he said.

Officer Taylor applauded the teens for attending the program and urged them to learn from what they saw.

“This is as real as we can make it,” he added. “Parents, talk to your kids, and kids, tell your parents what you deal with. I know it’s hard, but this will jump right in front of your face. It happened to me (when I was younger).”

Officer Taylor held up a poster depicting a woman who was addicted to heroin for 14 years. Her first arrest photo was taken when she was 16 and her last was taken when she was 30, just a few months before she died of an overdose. In the last photo, the woman looked like she was 80.

“It (heroin) will destroy you,” promised Taylor.

Drug society

Trooper Ed Asbury with Pennsylvania State Police also spoke to the group during the three-hour tour. He said Americans are living in a drug society, and no matter where we go, we are faced with them.

“Look at what we do every day,” he said. “When we want to get happy, we take a pill; when we want to sleep, we take a pill; when we want to be thin, we take a pill.”

Drugs come in many forms to entice children. Davis said some methamphetamines come in the form of strawberry rock candy. Heart-shaped pills and smiley-face ecstasy tablets also are marketed to the younger crowd.

Willing want

Asbury asked audience if anyone was a smoker.
One woman said she’s been smoking forever. Trooper Asbury said he could show her a black lung and tell her how many chemicals she was inhaling and it wouldn’t make her stop smoking because of the addiction.

“No matter what I say, it’s not going to change the way you feel,” he said. “It has to be an internal willing want to stop. As a police officer, what disturbs me the most is it’s (drug use) getting younger and younger and younger.”

The average age one starts doing drugs these days is 10, according to Davis.

Asbury also urged the teens to alert the police if they are offered drugs or see someone doing drugs. Anonymous hotlines are available for such reports.
For more information on the program or ways to help a loved one struggling with an addiction, call Davis at 263-1256. To report drug use, call the Franklin County Drug Task Force’s anonymous hotline at 1-800-344-3127 or e-mail

Child Death Review TeamThe Child Death Review Team will once again present the Reality Tour on February 27th and March 27th from 1 to 4 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Milford. The Child Death Review Team reviews all deaths occurring in Pike County from birth to 21 years in order to determine ways to prevent future deaths. The team has found that adolescent deaths directly related to drugs or alcohol has escalated in our county. The Reality Tour Drug Prevention program was created by Norma Norris of Butler, Pa in 2003, and is now promoted through the non-profit organization CANDLE, Inc. This is an evidence based program and has the support of the Pike County Commissioners, the Pike County District Attorneys, The Delaware Valley School Board and numerous non-profit and business organizations of Pike County. The tour is recommended for children ten and up when accompanied by a parent. Advance reservation is necessary, as space is limited. Parental Consent is also required along with a $5 registration fee.

Participants will follow the fate of a fictitious teen addicted to heroin. The tour includes dramatic scenes that include a peer pressure scene, an arrest and prison experience as well as dramatic emergency room overdose scene and funeral scene. All of these scenes are performed by community volunteers. A narrative by the "addict" precedes each scene including the constant reminder "I'm Just like You." The overall message of the Reality Tour combats the youthful belief "It can't happen to me." Each attendee will be given a drug abuse profile to adopt during the program so that participants can become familiar with different addictive drugs including the "gateway drugs."

The Reality Tour is a highly emotional experience that touches parent and child to form the foundation for on going parent child dialogue. Presently four Reality Tours a year are planned. We are extremely grateful for the support and volunteers we have received from our community. We are still in need of more volunteers especially youth ages 10 to 18 for the peer pressure scenes. If you would like to know more about this program or are able to lend your support in any way please call Jill Gamboni at (570) 296-3447 or (570) 390-9102.

By Denise Bonura/The Record Herald

Chambersburg, Pa. -

Did you know that 40 percent of high school students think it’s OK to try heroin?

Did you know that one in five eighth-graders has already tried marijuana?

Did you know that the average age a person starts using drugs these days is 10?

And did you know that most of the offers children get for drugs come from their friends?

Some local teens were shocked to hear those statistics while participating in a three-hour Reality Tour program Tuesday night in the Franklin County Courthouse.
The program, a national project of Candle Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Butler, was presented by volunteers and staff members from the Franklin/Fulton County Drug and Alcohol Program.

The Reality Tour was launched in Franklin County in November 2006. It strives to get youths between the ages of 10 to 18 thinking about their actions and the effect their actions have not only on themselves, but on their family and friends.

The program included group discussions, real-life skits, a video and guest speakers, including a former drug addict. The teens had their photos taken, and organizers “morphed” those photos to show what they would look like after abusing drugs.
When it was all over, they all had the chance to trace their hand on a banner and sign their names, promising to stay drug-free.

Group exercises

The 23 young people who attended first were broken into small groups and listed as narrators read stories regarding various illegal drugs.
One described an addiction to heroin.

“A friend told me if you snort heroin, you can’t get addicted to it,” one read. “I was snorting five bags a day just so I didn’t get headaches.”

A county case worker said he sees a lot of heroin addicts and noted it’s one of the more difficult addictions to break.

“An average person goes through rehab six times before they can kick heroin,” he told the group.

He also said people who are addicted to pain killers can turn to heroin use. One reason heroin is a big problem in Franklin County is its proximity to Interstate 81, according to the case worker.

 Other common addictions include over-the-counter cough syrup and cold medicines.

Lauri Davis, county drug and alcohol prevention specialist, had two teens demonstrate how difficult it is to break an addiction. She put a piece of rope around each of their wrists and entwined them. Jason Vinson, 13, and Nicholas Thomas, 12, wiggled around trying to get free without damaging the ropes. When they couldn’t do it, Davis said they had to first realize they had a problem and then ask for help. Once she helped them out of the bind, she told the audience to notice the ropes were still around their wrists.

“Just because you’re out of an addiction, you will have consequences that will affect you for the rest of your life,” she warned.

Life-like skits

Many of the teens sat with wide eyes and their mouths open as they watched 18-year-old Rebecca Etter get “arrested” for possession of narcotics. They were taken to her jail cell, where her mug shot and fingerprints were taken. The group then visited the “emergency room,” where Rebecca died on the gurney. Then they saw her “parents’” pain and suffering during her funeral.

Once the eye-opening skits were over, the group watched a 20-minute video that detailed real-life emergency room experiences.

“Every drug has the potential to be dangerous,” one doctor warned.

Drugs can led to cardiac arrest, and a coma is sometimes the consequence of binge drinking.

The video showed bloody car accident victims wheeled into the emergency room as catheters and tubes were inserted.

“I wish they (teenagers) could stand here and watch us one night and everything we do ... I think that would be a life lesson in itself,” another doctor said.

One boy told the story of the time he was driving drunk and killed his two friends, and a girl related the time she almost died from alcohol poisoning.

Former drug addict

Daniel Jensen, 32, spoke to the teens about his former heroin addiction.

“I was a straight-A student, in all gifted classes and on the honor roll,” he said. “But, I spent all of my 20s addicted to heroin.”

He said his stepfather let him try mixed drinks one night when he was 2. His family moved to Germany and when he was 14, he began buying alcohol. His mother let him smoke marijuana with her when he was 15.

“You know, a lot of people say marijuana is a gateway drug,” he said. “Marijuana is what put me around the people that did the other drugs.”

Jensen said he was insecure about being accepted. He entered his first rehab when he was 18 and began buying heroin when he was 19 or 20.

“I have a lot of friends who died,” he said. “I lied to everyone that cared about me and stole from my family.”

Jensen was arrested when he was 25 for selling heroin.

“I would go to Baltimore, sometimes a few times a day, to help destroy somebody else’s life,” recalled Jensen, who admitted he dealt the drug.

After three years in jail, he moved to a recovery house in York, but he still felt like he wasn’t part of the community, since he still sold drugs from time to time.

“Stopping drugs is one thing, fixing yourself is another.”

What really opened Jensen’s eyes was watching his daughter, now 9, being raised by her stepfather.

“I had to watch another guy do the job I should have been doing,” he added.

Jensen has been clean for three years and is now selling art in Denver, Colo. He said it becomes easier the farther away from the lifestyle you are.

“I feel like I’m part of the rest of the world now,” he added.


Charlotte Vinson and her son, Jason, of Greencastle said the program was “scary” and that they can relate to it.

“I want a deterrent, I want ways to avoid it,” Charlotte said.

Jason said he will pass on the information to his friends.

Anita Thomas of Thurmont said she brought her son, Nicholas, because he has been getting into trouble at school lately.

“I’m trying to do something to straighten him up,” she said.

Nicholas said he learned to stay away from drugs and will try to stay out of trouble now.

Zane Bard, 14, of Chambersburg said he has experienced peer pressure at school and learned how dangerous some of the drugs really are.

Franklin County Commissioner David Keller was very impressed.

“It was a great mix of reality, education and shock,” he said. “It was definitely more effective than reading a pamphlet.”

Jeff Longfellow, a volunteer with Enough is Enough, a group of parents promoting drug awareness, said the program is incredibly powerful and provides a “strong, emotional impact.”

Davis hopes all children 10 to 18 will participate. To date, there have been 265 who experienced the tour. A Chambersburg family donated the money that helped purchase the program’s guidelines.

“The parents are truly the No. 1 resource kids have to keep them clean and drug free,” added Davis. “My job is to get people thinking.”
For more information on the program, call Davis at 263-1256 or e-mail her at

Reality Tour at Belle Vernon Area High School traces downfall of addict

By Jeremy Sellew

Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, 12:16 a.m.

After three long years, the Reality Tour has finally arrived in the Mon Valley.

The first run of the program was held Monday at Belle Vernon Area High School. While the target audience will be parents and children ages 10 and older, the first go-round was to give donors and sponsors a look at the program and how it will aim to educate parents and kids about the dangers of a variety of drugs and addiction. The interactive program gives families the tools needed to reduce the risk of substance abuse.

“I think it went well other than a few technical issues with the sound and computer,” said Celeste Trilli Palmara, director of the BVA Reality Tour. “We're going to have a surround sound system here for the next one, but other than that everything went great. The scenes were really well done.”

The program leads observers through the life of an addict, beginning with interactions with peers and an arrest to the unfortunate circumstance of the funeral.

The program begins with a dialogue and statistics by Palmara and ends with an addict, “Justin,” giving his story.

An agent from the state Attorney General's office was also on hand to show slides of various drugs and paraphernalia.

“This program is important to your community,” Agent Jim Embree told the crowd of sponsors and civic leaders. “It's not meant to make anyone an expert, but it is meant to strike a little fear. It will help start a dialogue between a parent and child that can make a difference.”

During a slide that depicted “pharming,” which is the practice of a party being held in which kids bring any pills they can find and dump them in a bowl and take handfuls to ingest, Embree's words resonated with the crowd.

“It's like a Cub Scout meeting that everyone is supposed to bring a covered dish,” Embree said. “Only this dish can kill you. If someone overdoses, they have no idea what to tell medical staff what they took because they don't even know.

“It could be anti-seizure medication or blood pressure pills ... it's whatever they can find. It's terrifying.”

Embree stressed the importance of parents being educated.

“It's an epidemic out there. It's in your neighborhood, in your neighbor's house ... everywhere,” Embree emphasized. “Keep your eyes open and be observant and safe about it. Don't turn a blind eye.”

Other scenes of the tour depicted jail, an emergency room visit and funeral, with the latter two bringing some people to tears.

“When kids are here, each parent will bring their child to the casket and they will sign the guest book,” said Palmara, whose son is a recovering addict. “I think it's the most powerful of the scenes.”

Valerie Stringhill-Homanics, who previously pleaded with the Belle Vernon Area School Board to get involved, told the story of her son, also a recovering addict.

“I thought I was doing everything possible to raise happy, healthy children. I was hoping I got it right,” Homanics said. “Drugs do not discriminate. Don't have a false sense of security. Early intervention is the key. I can't go back and change things, but I can use what I learned to help and educate others.”

Palmara thanked the Belle Vernon Area Rotary Club and the school district for paying for the program.

School board members Joe Grata and Toni-Jo Kunka were in attendance Monday. Superintendent Dr. John Wilkinson and middle school Principal Greg Zborovancik were also invited, Palmara said.

She emphasized, though, that it is not a Belle Vernon Area-only program.

“It's not a traveling program,” Palmara said. “It is going to be held here, but this is a Mon Valley program. We want to reach out to all school districts and communities. We do have some registered from Monessen for next month's tour.”

Palmara thanked the top five financial donors for the program, the Belle Vernon Area Ministerium, DW Custom Painting Inc., the medical staff of Monongahela Valley Hospital, the Monessen Lions Club and Sarah Butler and Sabika Jewelry.

Palmara also acknowledged the participation of California University of Pennsylvania K-9 officer Sgt. Bob Kwiatkowski and Officer James Jeffrey as well as Mon Valley Emergency Medical Services.

“Pennsylvania is ranked third in the country in heroin use, with southwestern PA a big part of that,” Palmara mentioned during her opening. “This is the sixth Reality Tour in Westmoreland County. There is definitely a need for it.

“Like Agent Embree said, if this program stops one kid or helps one parent catch the signs, then it was definitely worth it.”

The tour will be held at the high school on the second Monday of every month during the school year beginning Sept. 8. To register, visit and follow the links to pick your site to register.

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

Copyright © 2014 — Trib Total Media

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