By: Debra Winters
For five straight years, Wayne Township has remained on the forefront of the ongoing opioid battle through public education. They will continue doing so this month with their sixth annual drug forum, an interactive discussion designed to inform parents about drug abuse.
This year’s main contributing sponsors of the drug forum are the Wayne Teachers Association (WEA) and the Albert Anthony Kayal Foundation (AAKF).
Wayne, like most communities in the State of New Jersey, is facing a detrimental drug problem. The goal of the seminar is to draw in as many parents along with their middle and high school-aged kids, said Wayne Mayor Chris Vergano.
He went on to speak about February’s triple fatal crash at a Delta gas station on Route 23 north. The driver, a 29-year-old Sussex County resident, had overdosed and was administered Narcan, a medication that blocks and reverses the affects of opioid overdoses. He was later arrested and charged.
“We just saw the tragedy unfold on Route 23 and what came out of it due to our proactive police department. How many other tragedies were avoided by the arrest of the driver,” questioned Vergano. “The number is staggering,” he stated.
At a recent mayor and council meeting, Vergano said they spoke about the number of Narcan uses the township had since the program started in September 2014. For three months the median age was 25. However since then, he reported it dropping down to as young as 16 with the oldest being 21. Just last year, there were 30 uses of Narcan, with 15 of them being Wayne residents.
“If we only reach one child, it’s still somebody’s kid. Then we’ve been successful,” said Vergano regarding the ongoing need for the drug forum.
“My goal when we started this forum,” said Vergano, “was to educate parents. We started working with the school system then we brought in the (WEA), the police department, and a host of other speakers over the five years we’ve been offering this event.
Some years there are big turnouts and others are very little. Mailers go out to every parent alerting them about the forum. Principals also do robo calls a couple days before and it’s also on the town and Board of Education websites.”
“It’s a very collaborative effort. We also send a notice out to our parks and recreation departments as well as the Police Athletic League (PAL) who notifies the Boys and Girls Club. A lot of notification goes out and I think that might start to wake people up,” Vergano said. “I think it’s also naturally growing on its own.”
Eda Ferrante, the WEA president, also recognizes the need for parental education.
“There are many children that are challenged with the temptations of drug use. Peer pressure is intense. The WEA sees this issue as vitally important and as partners in the community, we see it as our obligation to find solutions,” Ferrante stated.
Despite the fact that eradicating drug abuse forever would be difficult, Ferrante says the WEA will always aim at that target.
“Although it is our goal, we are not naive in believing that we could ever totally eradicate drug abuse and addiction in our community. What we hope to do is educate our parents, students, and fellow educators so that we can do all we can to address this drug scourge that has caused such harm,” she added.
Reaching a kid before his or her life spirals out of control remains the top goal of the drug forum. Because sadly many addicts that lose their life are not always kids, in many cases, they are adults who never got the memo. And in those cases, when tragedy strikes, there are also family members at stake.
AAKF is headed by executive director Michelle Eskow, a former Wayne resident whose brother Albert died from a drug overdose at age 33, leaving behind a wife and daughter.
“The goal of starting the foundation was to provide the outlook from previous addicts and how it impacted their lives. I always felt so strongly that if my brother had that support or information given to him at a crucial time in his teenage life it would have been beneficial,” Eskow stated.
This year’s drug forum will spotlight former NBA basketball player Chris Herren, who will speak about his addiction and recovery. He will also have separate speaking engagements at Wayne Valley High School and Wayne Hills High School.
Herren spent most of his career with the Boston Celtics as well as pro teams in various other countries. He began using cocaine at age 18, and eventually heroin for over 14 years. He struggled most of his career with opioid abuse using such painkillers as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet while with the Celtics.
Back in 2007 Herren was charged with possession of heroin in a Rhode Island parking lot. The following year in Fall River, Massachusetts he overdosed on heroin and crashed into a utility pole and was dead for 30 seconds before receiving Narcan.
Herren has been in recovery since 2008 and is a motivational speaker. He founded “The Herren Project”, with focus on assisting others in recovery. He now focuses on children and launched “Project Purple” in 2012 which educates children about his substance abuse message.
“The interesting thing about Chris Herren is he’s going to talk about one of the main reasons why he wound up in trouble. His parents allowed him to drink and smoke in their house. He also talks about going to these assemblies where people speak about drug addiction. He explains how he was the guy in the audience saying, ‘that’s not going to be me’. All I do is smoke and drink. I’m not going to be the guy that does anything stronger than that,’” said Robbin Gulino, coordinator of the Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse.
She went on to say, “The challenge facing those organizing the forum is talking to parents who say, ‘I don’t have that problem, I don’t know anyone with that problem.’”
However the reality is that – at this point the epidemic is so bad – that everyone knows somebody.
“The drug forum is helpful to offer people the understanding of what to do if the crises were to arise. And it’s also helpful to understand what to do when someone comes to you and says they have the problem in their own family. Maybe it’s not going to hit you per say but you need to have insight in terms of what advice to give,” Gulino said.
Wayne remains on the forefront in the battle of substance and alcohol abuse in Passaic County. Despite the drug forum, the Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse also educates the public in making drug-free choices. It started in 1990 and those involved work tirelessly on a volunteer level to promote safe and healthy lifestyles through prevention, intervention, and education.
“The Wayne Alliance does a fabulous job providing services to for alcohol and drug abuse. We have a lot of resources in the community available and I’d like to see more people take advantage of it,” said Wayne Police Capt. Laurence Martin.
For further information log onto, www.waynetownship.com/alliance.
The alliance is also a big proponent of communication between parents and their children about the existence of drugs, alcohol, and even tobacco. And the drug forum helps to educate parents on the overall topic.
“I’m not an expert. I’m just trying to get the word out every chance I get. Mayor Vergano was one of the first in the area to have a drug forum. The mayor came to me and said, ‘I’m not going to pretend there’s not a problem. I’m going to have this forum.’ And then all the sudden I notice now other towns are having similar events,” Gulino stated.
Every year Wayne tries different approaches when coordinating the drug forum. One of the more harrowing approaches included a panel of former addicts who all shared their personal stories with the audience. Another year fake drugs were hidden on stage to simulate a kid’s bedroom in an effort to educate parents on what signs to look for.
“Once there’s a problem, that’s the beginning of a spiral that nobody can predict,” Gulino said solemnly.
She added, “We try so hard as an alliance to get the point across that it’s no joke. Do not allow underage drinking. And it’s no joke to not allow smoking marijuana underage. All this underage activity is the stuff that leads to the next bad thing.”
The forum also informs parents on the current drug trends. The latest “cool thing” is vaping.
“Don’t be lazy. There’s no excuse to say you don’t know something today, not with the Internet and YouTube. Spend 10 minutes a day doing some research to learn what your kids are doing. I think with vaping, kids got it past their parents saying its just water and parents don’t understand that their kids are sucking something hazardous into their lungs,” Gulino said.
Parents like Donna Andelora, of Wayne, who lost her son to drug abuse at age 22, knows all too well about the importance of a forum. She has spoken at many, starting just six months after her son, Joey, overdosed on heroin.
“There is a need now more than ever to educate our youth, parents and even our educators as this epidemic is growing with no end in sight and more deadly now with fentanyl. We need to teach coping skills to our youth, decision making, as well as how to handle failure and disappointment. They need to be better equipped when entering adolescence. And we need to educate parents and teachers to know the signs of drug abuse and what to look for,” Andelora stated.
The Wayne Police are also on the forefront of the drug epidemic as they battle the situation on a daily basis.
“This is something we’ve been dealing with for years. This is not going away and it’s not going to end tomorrow,” Martin said.
There are so many drugs on the streets however many older ones continue to find their way back into the hands of addicts.
“What we’re seeing is an increase in crack cocaine via boats up and down the Eastern seaboard into the Ports of Baltimore and Newark. There was a huge seizure recently out of Newark, which is good news. But sadly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have a problem with people accessing our country with drugs and it has to stop. We’re losing a lot of people because of it,” Martin stated.
“The drug forum is a positive step,” he stated, “but more people need to attend if we’re going to get the word out.”
“I’d love to see the forum packed but we don’t because unless we’re changing the color of the football uniform or the color of the school mascot or changing the name of a school you won’t see anybody flood these events,” Martin said.
Echoing Gulino’s words, he added, “What happens is these types of events bring to light situations such as this recent accident. People have a tendency to look away unless it’s right in their face. The goal is to embrace the fact that the problem exists and to be aware of it and to be smart enough in how to deal with it and recognize it either in their household or neighborhood.
Narcotic arrests are made every day by the Wayne Police.
“The people we arrest are either behind the wheel, in a parking lot, or have overdosed. The problem is not going away. We march them in here every day. All demographics, all ages, all times of the day, it’s tragic, it’s really tragic,” Martin said.
The problem exists. That’s been stated. Parents though need to be educated.
Stop by this year’s drug forum on May 29, at 7 p.m., at Wayne Valley High School, located at 551 Valley Road, inside the auditorium. There will also be a Q and A portion. The event is free.