Community-Based Drug Prevention

No ‘reality’ spared in anti-drug drama at Seneca Valley

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – December 20, 2012

By Jill Cueni-Cohen

The dramatic presentation opened with a casual conversation about how cool it is to do drugs but turned into a horrible night of consequences, including death from an overdose. The consequence is an example of what could happen to teens who get hooked on drugs.

The “Reality Tour,” a substance-abuse prevention program staged last Thursday, was created in Butler nearly 10 years ago by Community Action Network for Drug-free Lifestyle Empowerment, Inc. as an interactive story in which middle school students and their parents are given a glimpse of what it might be like to live life hooked on heroin.

“I’m just like you,” chants the teenage voice throughout the program as she leads a group through a party, a drug bust, a real jail cell, another party, an emergency room and, finally, a mock funeral.

“Imagine trading places with me,” her recorded voice provokes. The program is offered at 6 p.m. on the second Thursday in the Adams municipal building, 690 Valencia Road.

Adams police Officer Edward Lenz, who has been on the job for three years, said he didn’t expect to encounter so many teenagers getting busted for drug-related offenses.

“We have a lot of underage drinking, marijuana use and prescription drug use, and we arrest quite a few teens,” he said.

Officer Lenz often plays the role of the “Reality Tour” program’s arresting officer.

” ‘Reality Tour’ focuses on decision-making and how to get out of a bad situation,” he said, adding that he has never arrested a teen after they attended a “Reality Tour” program. “The kids get a certificate of attendance, and they sign a pledge to be drug-free.”

Executive director Norma Norris of Butler founded the nonprofit CANDLE, Inc. when the fledgling “Reality Tour” program model was being requested by neighboring communities.

In November, the organization was presented with the 2012 Top-Rated Non-Profit Award by GreatNonprofits, a national provider of nonprofit user reviews, based on the number of positive reviews from volunteers, donors and clients.

Perla Ni, CEO of GreatNonprofits said, “We are gratified by CANDLE Inc. and its life-changing work in prevention. They deserve to be discovered by more donors looking for a great nonprofit to support.”

Steven Smith, principal of Haine Middle School in Cranberry agreed.

“I’ve been involved with this program for the past four years,” he said. “The middle school years encompass the most critical developmental stage in life. Putting kids this age in an environment where they can safely see what can happen gives them a connection to real life and teaches them how to handle such situations.”

The “Reality Tour” programs also open up a dialogue for families. “Parents learn what signs to look for, which is important, because we take it for granted that when our kids are in school, they’re safe,” pointed out CANDLE board member John Walchesky, 56, of Butler. “Statistically, it takes two years before parents realize that their kids are using drugs and alcohol. No one wakes up one day and decides to become a junkie; it’s transitional. Two years is a long time for progression.

“This is not a ‘scared straight’ type of program,” he noted. “We help kids realize the consequences and learn how to navigate the influences and peer pressure. … It’s a partnership between parents and kids.

“No family is immune; drug abuse doesn’t respect geographical boundaries; it can affect kids who get straight A’s to the kids who come from broken homes,” added Mr. Walchesky.

It’s not uncommon for kids to want to help steer their peers away from drug abuse after experiencing a Reality Tour.

“I brought my daughter to a ‘Reality Tour’ five years ago, when she was in fifth grade. We signed up to become volunteers after the tour, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” said Lisa Brown, 44, of Adams. She said one of the most powerful parts of the tour is when students from George Junior Republic School in Grove City talk to the groups about how their lives were nearly ruined by drugs.

“Here, they can see what can potentially happen,” said Mrs. Brown. “With my kids, I want their friends to attend, but that’s not up to me. I can only influence my own kids. Through volunteering, I can affect others.”

For more information about how to sign up for a “Reality Tour” or get the program started in your community, visit www.realitytour.org.