DARE to be drug free

GOWANDA – For the first time in nearly 14 years, every fifth grader at Gowanda Middle School has graduated the DARE program. The fifth-grade class recently celebrated its annual graduation ceremonies from the program taught by School Resource Officer Jen Alessi.

The graduation ceremonies included several guest speakers including a former student who has battled drug addiction. The DARE Program is made possible through sponsors and private donations. Alessi thanked all those who sponsored or contributed private donations to the program.

A new curriculum of “Keepin’ It Real” was used this year with the students. This curriculum teaches critical thinking skills, how to properly deal with stress, making good decisions, and learning how to say no to drugs and alcohol. Elementary School Principal Janice Stokes told students what they learned in her school were the building blocks and prerequisites for DARE. She told the students to follow the dictionary definition of “dare,” to be bold and have courage. She concluded by quoting Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.”

“… You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. … With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not so good street,” Stokes read.

Since this is Stokes’ last year at the elementary school, fifth-grade teacher Stephen Cocca read an essay written by Hayley Stang. Middle School Principal David Smith said the DARE program holds a special place in his heart – his father was an alcoholic.

“… The ability to resist drugs and alcohol will be a skill that’s important to all these young men and women as they grow up and it’s very near and dear to my heart,” Smith said.

Chief Scott Joslyn of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office said students’ decisions made in the future will affect the rest of their lives. He also told students to set goals, both short-term and long-term. He told students when they are having a tough time whenever faced with peer pressure or decisions, students should lean on family and friends.

“That’s where you’re going to go when you don’t know where to go. They’re here today to support you in your decision to be alcohol and drug free,” Joslyn said.

Jessica Sherman, Face 2 Face director of Kids Escaping Drugs, brought a former Gowanda student to explain how he went from an honor roll student to being in jail and rehab numerous times. The student, who requested to not be named by the OBSERVER, moved to Gowanda in fifth grade and graduated from the DARE program.

He had good grades, participated in sports and had perfect attendance up until sixth grade and never had any desire to start using drugs or alcohol but he started hanging out with the wrong group of kids. He started smoking marijuana at the age of 13 to fit in with a group of older kids. He started smoking on occasion which increased to monthly, weekly and even daily. He admitted to even smoking marijuana before, after and during school.

In seventh grade, he had started drinking and that’s when his life went “downhill.” The student said once he started drinking, he did not care about school and his grades began to drop. He was drinking daily and he did not care about friends, family or school anymore; he only cared about how he was going to get alcohol.

“By the time I was in ninth grade, I was getting in trouble every single day. I got kicked out of school, I had been in trouble so many times, they didn’t want me back. I left here with nothing more than a ninth grade education,” he said.

Once being kicked out of school, he said he left home and by the age of 17 he was arrested by Alessi for the first time for larceny. He said once he was out of jail, two days later he was arrested again. At this point in time, he started using prescription pills, then heroin and eventually crack cocaine. In total, the student said he has been arrested 37 times, been to jail 19 times and has been in five different rehab facilities.

“… Every time I did a new drug I always set a new limitation for myself until there was a point where there was no more limitations and there was no stopping me,” he said. “It didn’t matter that I had family that cared about me, it didn’t matter I had friends … nothing mattered.”

Due to the drugs, the student said he has been homeless, been shot at, been stabbed and robbed. The student said he was one of the “lucky ones” to come out of addiction and he has seen nine people die from a drug overdose within the past six months.

“Before you make those decisions that will affect your life, take my story into consideration” he said.

To graduate from the program, students had to compose an essay, poem or a song. A winner and first runner-up for each fifth grade class was selected. Essay winners were Emma Luther, Emily Vassallo, Kayla Forthman, Grace Wakefield and Beth Stang. Runner up winners were Dakota Richter, Maria Chew, Ariel Stevens, Devon Van Wey and David Ball.

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