Reality Tour gives families spin through short life of a heroin addict

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – 2005

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.”

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