By Rory Sweeney Staff Writer
WEST PITTSTON – Without actually dying from a drug overdose, students from Wyoming Area and Greater Pittston Area school districts experienced what might be the next closest thing on Monday evening.
About a year ago, Wyoming Valley Alcohol and Drug Services, Inc. purchased Reality Tour, a drug addiction prevention program developed in the Pittsburgh area. The program – the first of its kind in the region – combines a live enactment of a drug arrest, an overdose death in a hospital emergency room and a funeral along with statistics, information, legal ramifications and the experiences of a recovered addict.
The roughly 100 people packed into the borough building for the inaugural showing were a mix of students and their parents from the two districts’ Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Action Team.
After the “drug arrest” – which featured a planted suspect sitting in the crowd – WVADS Chief Executive Officer Carmen Ambrosino noted that there have been 448 overdose deaths in the county in the past nine years. Even with employees holding signs that read “Quiet Please!”, the realistic scenes that followed elicited a near-constant whisper.
And for good reason: most of the participants in the scenes were playing out what actually happens at their jobs. West Pittston and Pittston police officers made the mock arrest and booking, while volunteers from Geisinger Health System performed the emergency room scene.
“We rehearsed it, but once tonight came, there was a lot of emotion that came out from them that wasn’t in the rehearsal,” Ambrosino said of the actors, which included WVADS employees.
“We saw the impact that it has on kids and the community,” said Sue Mizenko, who coordinated the event. “We intend in the future to have more programs, but we have to (find) permanent housing.”
WVADS is looking to lease a space for monthly showings.
Mizenko said one benefit of the event is that it requires parents to accompany their children. She said they’ve held informational events at schools, but found parents don’t come for fear that people will think their kids have drug problems.
Luzerne County Senior District Judge Andrew Barilla read the experience of a 17-year-old who dies in a car crash, saying it’s required reading for any teenagers who come before him for traffic offenses in the hope that it will make them or their parents cry.
But the real emotional impact came when Frankie took the floor. Now sober for two years, the recovering drug addict said he’d spent the past seven years in and out of incarceration and rehab. “A lot of what was said tonight was my story,” he said.
“Drugs and alcohol are so strong they’ll take the sweetest little girl or the sweetest little kid and tear them apart.”
REALITY TOUR GIVES FAMILIES SPIN THROUGH SHORT LIFE OF A HEROIN ADDICT
Babs Stewart of Butler doesn't need a tour of the county jail to know the harsh realities of a drug arrest. She doesn't need an explanation of the booking process, the strip searches, the delousing.
Stewart needs only to look to her immediate family.
Stewart's 19-year old son is addicted; he's doing his second stint in jail for violating probation. And she's the one who put him there. She knew he was using again after being in jail once, and called to have him picked up by his probation officer.
Having your child arrested is something most parents would lament, but Stewart is not sitting around feeling sorry for herself. Instead she's trying to show other families what really happens when someone makes the choice to use drugs.
She's a volunteer guide on the Reality Tour.
The Reality Tour is the brainstorm of Norma Norris and other members of Candle Inc, a community group working to inform young people of the horrors of addiction. It's a 90-minute walk through the life of "Michael," a fictional addict created by the group.
Michael is a regular kid, not a troublemaker by any stretch, but he succumbs to peer pressure and tries heroin at a party. From there, his life takes a steep plunge into oblivion.
Stewart hopes those on the tour will see what happens to Michael and avoid using any kind of drug.
"My son was an average kid. He played Little League and did OK in school," she said. "I never thought this would happen."
Stewart likens her son's struggle to having a family member with a deadly illness.
"We wouldn't walk away from him if he had cancer. This is a sickness and we're going to be there for him, no matter what."
Stewart's real-life story is what Candle Inc is trying to help families avoid by staging the Reality Tour.
The tour focuses on what happens to a person after he or she makes the decision to use drugs and how that decision affects the people around them.
"I don't think kids realize how dangerous heroin and other drugs are," Carol Achezinski, a group board member and another tour volunteer said.
The inaugural reality tour started with an addiction -- every participant was assigned one and given a profile spelling out what the drug does to the body and mind, how it can disrupt the user's life and the lives of family and friends.
Then participants were divided into groups, and the first group left the YWCA, headed across the street for a tour of the Butler County Prison.
As the tour cut through the parking garage on Cunningham Street, though, a young man darted out from between two parked cars and ran toward the exit. A police cruiser pulled into the garage, and an officer jumped from the car and tackled him.
The officer cuffed the shouting young man, searched him, and found heroin. Then the officer looked up at the gawking tour group, and asked it to keep moving.
At the prison, the group learned that the young man was the fictional Michael. Then they heard his voice -- actually that of Butler Township police Officer Ron Pate -- on tape describing the arrest, how it felt to be handcuffed and locked in the back of a police car.
Michael's voice would follow the group, providing insight into his life. During the prison visit, Michael talked about trying to fit in at school, and how being invited to a party, the party at which he first tried heroin, made him feel included and liked.
But he also talked about being taken to jail, and about going through withdrawal there.
At the jail, counselor Justin Baptiste explained the booking process. He showed tour participants the standard issue blanket, pillow and uniform every inmate receives and he gave them a peek into holding cells where some addicts experience the first pangs of withdrawal.
While Baptiste has seen heroin addicts in their 50s and 60s come through the jail, the majority are just a little older than the teens on the tour.
"The average junkie we book in here is about 19 or 20 years old, and if it's his or her first time they are pretty shaken," he said.
Unfortunately, that fear can't stand up to the desire for drugs, and they end up making repeat visits.
Back at the YWCA, the tour group found Michael on an emergency room table, dying from an overdose.
Then his family bursts into the room and learned of his overdose from the doctors.
Like many parents of addicts, Michael's parents denied that their son could be using drugs.
The scene brought a few parents on the tour to tears, and a look of shock to the faces of most of the young people.
"I'm glad to see the emotion from the parents," Achezinski said later. "I hope the kids are getting something out of this, too."
The final destination on the Reality Tour was the funeral home, where Michael's friends and family gathered to say goodbye to him.
The funeral director, played by Achezinski, asked participants to pay their respects to the family and write something about Michael in the guest book.
Participants then gathered at the YWCA to watch a film about the dangers of heroin. They could also buy copies of the movie, Reality Tour T-shirts, drug-testing kits and other literature regarding drug abuse prevention.
The tour got high marks from Jane Taylor, of Saxonburg.
Taylor, 42, and her daughters Abbey, 13, and Emily, 15, took the tour out of a sense of duty: Taylor's mother is on the group's board.
But at the end, they were glad they did.
"I never thought [drug addiction] would be something that could happen to me," Abbey said. "This made it more real to me. The jail freaked me out."
Jane Taylor will be spreading the word to other parents. "I can't believe how realistic the family scenes were," she said. "I would definitely tell other parents to take their kids through this."
Standing outside the YWCA after the tour, Stewart admitted that the event was an emotional 90 minutes for her. She thinks of her own son's struggles, and knows he will spend a lifetime battling the addiction because of one choice.
"I thought it was as simple as putting him in rehab and then he'd be cured. Like it was the chickenpox," she said. "We will be fighting this for the rest of our lives."
By LINDA REILLY
UPPER DARBY — Upper Darby High School students, participating in the county’s first Reality Tour, learned the consequences of experimenting with drugs
The dramatic scenes began with a casual conversation and invitation to a teen party where booze and drugs would be free-flowing, and the subsequent arrest and prosecution of a drug dealer and another juvenile.
It culminated with the death of a 17-year-old from a drug overdose.
“What you saw was as close as you’ll ever get to seeing a drug overdose without getting involved,” Delaware County Memorial Hospital Paramedic Joseph Perezi said. “This is what police and doctors see and do every day.”
Holcomb Behavioral Systems and the township’s Weed and Seed program offered the program to parents and children in grades five through 12 and received positive reactions and a recommendation that it be mandatory for all students.
“I heard about this through the school,” said Yolanda Cucinotta, the mother of a 12-year-old Drexel Hill Middle School student. “I’m all about education. This program should be mandated for all grades. My daughter thought parts of it were a little scary, especially the emergency-room scene. She was eyes on. The school always takes the kids on bus trips, and they should take them to this. I’m really glad we were there.”
The Reality Tour program took place on Ashland Avenue and utilized the Primos Library, Primos District Court and jail and Primos-Secane-Westbrook Park Fire Department, which served as the emergency room.
Real-life officials and officers participated in the presentation.
Participants and volunteers playing their real-life roles included Magisterial District Judge Kelly Micozzie-Aguirre, Magisterial Judge Anthony Scanlon as the defense attorney, Pennsylvania State Constable Carmen Damiani as constable, Assistant District Attorney Ian McCurdy as prosecutor, Upper Darby Capt. Anthony Paparo and patrolmen Steve Cristinzio, Mike Givens and Robert Wheatley, as arresting officers, Juvenile Probation and Parole Officer Jennifer Green, schoolteacher Sabrina Perry and Delaware County Memorial Hospital paramedics and emergency room staff. Other parts were played by Rose Pucillo, Jim McCusker, Candice Linehan and Audrey Persing.
Upper Darby Township Library Director Nancy Hallowell served as funeral director in the last scene of the Reality Tour, complete with a casket provided by O’Leary’s Funeral Home.
Paparo’s nephew, Joseph Paparo, 17, and Kevin Dietzler, 28, portrayed the teens that engaged in buying and selling drugs. Dietzler was a last-minute understudy for P.J. Pucillo, who was injured prior to the play-acting.
High school students in other roles included Sharletta Hargrove, Angelica Rivera, Stephanie Kay, Jasmine Bryant and Anne Marie Bruce.
Perezi was first to step out of character to talk to the youth and parents on the Reality Tour after the teen was pronounced dead.
“I really liked the program,” Melanie Hudson, the parent of an 11-year-old, said. “It was so real, but sad. My eyes watered when the boy was pronounced dead. I felt for the victim and the family, not even knowing them. Everything they did solidified what I’ve been telling my daughter Veronica about drugs.”
Her daughter was saddened watching the emergency-room scene.
“I already know a lot about drugs, and I would say no if asked,” Veronica Hudson said. “It would mean I would throw away all my goals.”
Mayor Thomas Micozzie explained the condensed court hearings presented usually take about three months.
Micozzie recommended District Attorney G. Michael Green adopt the program for first-time drug offenders.
Green informed the group that more than 5,000 juvenile petitions were filed last year, with 40 percent for drug violations.
“This whole day was very frank and very important,” Green said.
A recovering drug addict spoke to the group about his experiences and Paparo offered a police perspective on drugs and a short video.
“Drug problems affect every part of our community,” police Superintendent Michael Chitwood said. “Programs like this are a way of getting the community involved. Drugs impact all other crimes spinning after it, burglary, robbery and theft.”
Parents and children left the Reality Tour with reference information, communication suggestions and community resources from Holcomb, Chitwood and Weed and Seed.
“I thought Capt. Paparo made a good point about calling home if drugs or alcohol is offered at a party,” Melanie Hudson said. “The party is over for them. They should go home.”
The next Reality Tour will be scheduled in the fall.
By Kelly Waters
The News Eagle
Posted Mar 05, 2012 @ 05:58 PM
During the Feb. 22 meeting of the Pike County Commissioners, members of the Child Death Review Team spoke about the upcoming Reality Tour. The Child Death Review Team will present the Reality Tour drug prevention program on March 10, April 14 and May 19 from 1 p.m. - 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.
“Our job is to come up with ways to prevent future deaths, says Jill Gamboni, CCIS Director. “In 2008 one of the projects we came up with was the Reality Tour Drug Prevention because we were reviewing overdose 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.
“The program is designed for a parent and child to attend together, says Gamboni. “We want the message to reach both. One in four families has a drug problem in their families, whether it be someone directly related to them or if it’s an aunt, uncle or someone else in the family.”
The tour is recommended for children 10 and up when accompanied by a parent. Advance reservation is recommended, as space is limited. Parental consent is also required along with a five dollar suggested donation registration fee.
“We would like as many people as we can to come out and see this program,” adds Gamboni. “We have the support of the Milford Fire Department, the Pike County Coroner’s Office, the Pike County Commissioners , the Pike County District Attorney’s Office, the Shohola Police Department, the Eastern Pike Regional Police and Milford Police. There are a ton of people who help out with this.”
Gamboni says that they can use actors for the Reality Tour, but says they are very fortunate in the community that they don’t need them. She says real people come out and help do this.
“They take their time and we’re all volunteers, she says. “ It takes about 30 volunteers to pull off this Reality Tour.”
The Reality Tour takes place at the First Presbyterian Church and is a licensed program from CANDLE, INC. It is a site specific license meaning it can only be held at the Presbyterian Church.
Participants will follow the fate of a fictitious teen addicted to heroin. The tour includes six dramatic scenes; 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.”
“It is a very dramatic experience,” says Gamboni. “ After the Reality Tour, the District Attorney’s Office has a detective come and speak to the audience about what’s happening in community.”
At the end of the tour, kids and teens put their handprint on the banner and that’s their pledge to be drug free. Gamboni says that she hopes they follow through with that.
Registration forms can be found at www.realitytour.org . If you would like to know more about this program, register for a tour or are able to lend your support in any way please call Jill Gamboni at (570) 296-3447 or (570) 390-9102.
Gamboni also talked about the Good Samaritan Law in Pa. that provides immunity to underage drinkers who call 9-1-1 because someone needs medical attention. The individual must provide their name and stay with the person until paramedics arrive.
“The law eliminates the disincentive for underage drinkers to call for help,” says Gamboni. “It’s unfortunate that we need it, but it’s great it passed.”