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Program to prevent drug abuse expands

| Monday, March 3, 2014, 8:58 p.m.

Three drug-prevention Reality Tours are being added to the three tours in Westmoreland County in an effort to educate and forewarn parents and youths, said the director of the Butler County-based program.

Program founder Norma Norris, executive director of CANDLE, Inc., said programs in Latrobe, Murrysville and Belle Vernon will start this year. The most popular of the tours is conducted several times a year at the Westmoreland County Courthouse.

“I use Westmoreland County as the best example for community-based drug prevention in my webinars that reach across the U.S.,” Norris said. “Yes, they have a drug problem. But they aren't waiting for someone else to fix it for them.”

In addition to programs in Greensburg, Norwin and Mt. Pleasant, the Latrobe Rotary clubs in Latrobe and the Belle Vernon area have started tours. A group of volunteers in Murrysville is searching for a sponsor, she said.

Reality Tours trace the path of a teenager who becomes addicted to heroin. Parents and their children follow a dramatic re-enactment of the teen's arrest, imprisonment, overdose and funeral.

Since the program started in 2007, 7,000 youths and parents have participated, Norris said.

Despite the program's popularity, Norris acknowledges that Reality Tours have been criticized by experts at Penn State's Prevention Research Center, who contend there is no evidence to prove the program works.

“We are an evidence-based program on a national level,” she said. “We get criticism because we are not evidence-based on the Penn State level. I thought we were all in this together.”

The increase in addiction and overdose deaths from prescription medications and heroin has triggered alarms throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. Westmoreland County has set records for overdose deaths for the past five years. Deaths have steadily climbed from 22 in 2002 to 92 last year.

Norris said the program expansion is not linked to the surge in addiction and deaths. She said plans to organize the programs predate the current problems.

“It is good timing. Westmoreland County has really been concerned about this for a great deal of time,” Norris said.

At a recent drug forum at St. Vincent College, Gina Davis, director of the Reality Tour for the Norwin School District, said some middle school students are heroin addicts.

“The average age for experimentation is getting lower and lower,” Norris said.

She said the average age at which youths begin experimenting with drugs is 10, and teens as young as 13 are abusing prescription medication.

In Hempfield Area schools, 200 families are drug-testing their children using free kits provided the district.

“We are coming from behind in addressing this problem,” Norris said.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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