By Jeremy Sellew
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 involve,” he said.
Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2667.