Butler County anti-drug Reality Tour demand keeps growing
Exposure to illegal drugs is part of nearly every student's high school experience, said Knoch High School senior Cheyenne Sutton.
“That's high school every day,” she said. “You don't get away from it.”
That's why for the past four years Sutton, 17, has volunteered with the Reality Tour, a three-hour evening program for students 10 and older and their parents that's aimed at reducing substance abuse.
She observed the program as a sixth-grader at Knoch Middle School.
Now she's usually the actor who gets arrested when police find “drugs” on her.
The dramatization is so compelling — she's even placed in the one of the holding cells in the Adams Township Municipal Building — that kids often whisper to their parents asking if it's real, Sutton said.
CANDLE, Community Action Network for Drug-free Lifestyle Empowerment, is the nonprofit that developed the Reality Tour.
The organization celebrated its 10th anniversary last week with an open house at its Brugh Avenue headquarters in the city of Butler.
“I didn't see this coming,” said Norma Norris, CANDLE's executive director and Reality Tour program creator. “It's only by the demand that's there and the people who are willing to volunteer. Those are the reasons we are able to continue.”
The reality tour was originally scheduled as three events over the summer in Butler County in 2003.
“By the time we got to September, we had a two-month waiting list to get into the program, so we continued — and we still had a two-month waiting list,” Norris said.
The program features first-person accounts from recovering addicts and law enforcement personnel as well as dramatizations of a person committing crimes to obtain drugs, incarceration, an emergency room scene and a funeral for a drug user who overdosed.
The scenes are narrated.
“Through the whole thing the addict is reminding the youth that ‘once I was just like you,' ” Norris said, “meaning ‘I once had a choice.' ”
That comes early in the program to make an emotional impact. Then the participants get information on how to prevent or deal with substance abuse.
It includes educating parents about the choices their children could face daily, family coping methods and simple changes such as parents keeping prescription medication somewhere other than the bathroom medicine cabinet and locking up alcohol.
Reality Tours are now held at least once a month in 13 counties in Pennsylvania and 10 other states. A number of school districts now host tours for middle school students.
The South Butler School District was the first to pilot the Reality Tour for its students eight years ago. The YWCA in Butler hosts the tour for Knoch Middle School students and holds the event monthly.
Between 25 percent and 30 percent of the students and their parents attend, said middle school Principal Frank Moxie.
“I went through the program myself when my children were sixth-graders,” he said. “I think it's something that all children need to see. It's about making a choice and what can happen, from dabbling with usage to actually being killed by it.”
An anonymous donor has provided the district with funding to cover the $5-per-person cost of attendance for middle-schoolers, he said.
Recovering substance users from George Junior Republic, a private, nonprofit residential treatment facility for at-risk youths in Grove City, volunteer to share their stories during part of the program.
“It helps them work through their own personal challenges by giving back to the community,” said Sue Boland, George Junior's director of development.
CANDLE board member Jerry Bowser of Slippery Rock shares his personal story about what it's like to lose a child to an overdose.
Bowser had previously participated in the program with his daughter. She spoke about her struggles with drug use, including heroin, and he spoke about what it was like to deal with the issue as a family.
Bowser said his adult daughter died of an overdose about three years ago. That was after several years of being clean.
He said he and his wife believe that if they would have known about the Reality Tour before their daughter started using drugs that things might have turned out differently.
“It was too late for us,” Bowser said. “It shows parents what to look for and what things are out there.”
The Reality Tour explains to parents that it can take about two years to realize that their child is hooked on heroin. And that's even if you regularly spend time together as a family.
“It's not like you turn a switch on one day; it takes time,” Bowser said. “It's a gradual thing with a drug.”
Saxonburg District Judge Sue Haggerty said she orders youthful offenders to attend a Reality Tour as an alternative sentence.
“I found it a useful tool other than having parents pay fines and (court) costs,” she said. “I think every parent should go with their child. I think it's a good learning experience.
“Hopefully then, it wouldn't have to be something that is court-mandated.”
Norris was spurred to create the program when she heard a radio interview with former Butler County District Attorney Timothy McCune. He spoke about the increasing number of heroin overdose deaths among people in their 20s. He said youths were beginning to try the drug at younger ages.
“It just flabbergasted me that a drug you knew was killing people, kids were going to pick up and try it,” Norris said. “So I did research on educational materials and decided that either our youth didn't believe what we were telling them about the harm of drugs, or thought that it wouldn't happen to them.”
She also found that many parents were “clueless” about what's in their child's environment.
“They have a false sense of security that ‘my child won't do that, or this isn't going to happen to my family,' ” Norris said. “I've seen Boy Scouts, honor students and kids who struggle become addicted to drugs.”
And the choices have only become more varied, Norris said. They include designer drugs sold online such as bath salts and incense, which are a cocktail of harmful substances intended to mimic the effects of drugs like marijuana or cocaine, she said.
“These are the worst of the worst,” Norris said. “It's such a concern. I never thought that our children would ever be at this level of risk.”
Moxie said the South Butler School District encourages students' participation not because drugs are a major problem in the district but because it's important for parents and kids to be aware of what's out there.
“I've been involved in several school districts, and to say there isn't a drug problem in any school you're at, I don't know what kind of rock you're living under, but it's there,” Moxie said. “I see it as a valuable, preventative tool.”
Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or firstname.lastname@example.org.