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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