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Westmoreland

Organizers hope more will attend anti-drug Reality Tour

Jeff Himler
| Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, 12:45 p.m.

Greater Latrobe and Derry Area students filed through the halls of Latrobe’s municipal building with their parents. They paused to view a teen behind bars for a drug arrest and another suffering an overdose in an emergency room.

A final simulation depicted a mock funeral. On display were photos of several local overdose victims. Inside a casket, students viewed themselves in a mirror. “Don’t let this be you,” read a cautionary message.

Josh Vacha, 11, of Unity was one of about 30 people who attended Latrobe’s Reality Tour drug awareness program on Wednesday. Though he couldn’t put the experience into words, his reaction spoke volumes to his parents.

“You weren’t the same person walking out as you were walking in,” Chad Vacha told his son. “I saw you laughing earlier, and you weren’t laughing when you walked back out.”

The Latrobe program is in its fourth year. Director Mary Ann Musick hopes it has a deep enough impact to keep those who attend from joining the local toll of overdose deaths.

From 2007 through 2016, 825 people died in Westmoreland County from drug overdoses. Last year, drugs killed a record 193 people in the county, according to figures from the coroner’s office.

Fatal overdoses, however, are down so far in 2018 — which has seen 80 confirmed deaths and 15 other potential cases still under investigation.

“That’s wonderful, but I don’t think it means people aren’t using (drugs) now,” Musick said. “I just think, with Narcan and the other things available now, we’re not losing as many people.”

Musick lost a son to a heroin overdose 12 years ago. He was among the depicted victims on the Reality Tour.

“It is the most horrible experience you could ever live through,” Musick said, noting it prompted her to organize the local Reality Tour with sponsorship from the Latrobe Rotary and local businesses. “If I can save one child by doing this, I’ve reached my goal.”

Musick hopes to keep increasing the realism of the program’s simulated scenes. Just as important is the educational component, which draws upon national data and a presentation by local law enforcement to urge students to avoid using drugs. Parents get updated information about drugs and related paraphernalia that can help them recognize if their child is abusing substances.

Josh Vacha’s mother, Susan, has encountered overdose deaths in her work as an area funeral director but was surprised by some unfamiliar drug varieties detailed in the Reality Tour. That includes powdered alcohol, which can turn any beverage into a potent drink and is banned in 31 states, including Pennsylvania.

“That’s crazy,” she said. “I guess we’re not as informed as we thought we were.”

The Latrobe program is an offshoot of an original Reality Tour developed 15 years ago by Butler County resident Nora Norris, operating through the nonprofit Community Action Network for Drug-Free Lifestyle Empowerment (CANDLE). Intended for children ages 10-15 and accompanying parents or guardians, giving both groups the same drug information.

“It’s supposed to be that foundation for ongoing discussion,” Norris said.

The concept has taken hold in seven states and Ontario, Canada.

Of 18 programs in Pennsylvania, the largest concentration is in Westmoreland County. In addition to Latrobe, there are Reality Tours in Greensburg, Mt. Pleasant, Murrysville and the Belle Vernon Area and Norwin school districts.

One basic objective is to get people to attend, Norris said.

The Latrobe tour draws steady participation from neighboring Derry Area School District, where a guidance counselor promotes the program among sixth-graders. Musick also hopes to attract attendance from Ligonier Valley School District.

Attendance by Greater Latrobe School District residents dropped from 181 in 2014-15 to 29 last school year, prompting Musick to speak at a recent school board meeting to increase awareness.

The district’s elementary staff have helped spread the word, as the Vachas learned about the tour during an event at Baggaley Elementary. Still, Musick has concluded that many Latrobe Area parents believe older elementary children are still too young, so she may refocus efforts on seventh-graders.

Attendance isn’t a problem in Belle Vernon, as the school district made the Reality Tour part of the curriculum.

Initiated in 2014-15, when 218 people attended, the Belle Vernon Reality Tour saw its highest attendance last school year — 412 , including 204 children — according to the program director Celeste Trilli Palamara. It was the first year Belle Vernon incorporated the program into its seventh-grade health curriculum, after introducing it in the ninth grade the previous year.

“We’ve had unbelievable cooperation and reception from the public and the families involved,” Palamara said.

The program also attracts people from Frazier, Ringgold, Charleroi, Monessen and Yough schools, Palamara noted.

“You have some parents who say, ‘I talk to my kids (about drugs), it’s never going to be my kid,’” said Belle Vernon Middle School Principal John Grice. “What about your kid’s friend who might not have that conversation or relationship with their parent? We all have to be watching each other’s backs.”

There is a fee of $5 per person for attending a local Reality Tour, but the fee can be waived for students who receive free or reduced-price school lunches. Visit candleinc.org for more information about the program.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, jhimler@tribweb.com or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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