By Felicia A. Petro/Senior Reporter
GROVE CITY —
The Grove City Rotary Club is offering a dose of reality for kids before they start experimenting with drugs.
The Reality Tour, a unique, federally endorsed drug and alcohol program for 10- to 18-year-olds will be presented monthly - starting in March - at Grove City Medical Center in Pine Township. It features a drama about a teen drug addict who dies, and speakers who have first-hand experience with the effects of substance abuse.
"I can't wait for everyone to see it. It's incredible. We've been practicing since the first week of January," said Darla Motta, president of the Grove City Rotary Club.
"Every parent should feel compelled to take their child to this program," added Norma Norris, a Butler Township woman who created the Reality Tour.
Sixth-graders are being targeted for the program, but the 10 to 18 range is welcome, just as long as they come with a parent or caretaker and register. Reality Tour is not open to the general public.
Seventh grade is usually the time when kids begin to experiment with substances, said Larry Connelly, Grove City Middle School principal, who is organizing volunteers for the tour.
"It's scary," he said, about the challenges kids are facing in today's world regarding substances.
"We don't see much at the middle school, but you hear of things happening outside," he said, especially involving alcohol use.
"Right now it's taking parents two years before they know (if a child is on drugs)," Norris said.
The 65-year-old created Reality Tour in response to a heroin epidemic of "staggering numbers" in Butler in 2002, she said. She worked as an account executive for Butler WBUT AM and WLAR FM when the Butler County district attorney was interviewed by the station.
He said, "We were losing people in their 20s to heroin ... and teens in high school were starting to experiment with the drug," she said. "It just exploded in our community."
Norris asked her son - who was in college by then - what it was like attending Butler High School, and he admitted knowing people who were heroin addicts.
And why didn't he experiment himself, Norris asked him. "He said, 'I could always see beyond the next 10 minutes,'" she said, which has become Reality Tour's motto.
"That comment stayed in my mind," she said. "Why couldn't kids stay beyond the next 10 minutes?"
With her skills in the media, she began researching a solution and pulling resources from organizations and individuals to create Reality Tour.
In the summer of 2003, the tour was slated for three programs only; however, the waiting list went two months beyond summer, and the show kept going; now twice monthly in Butler County, as well as in 10 other states.
"I didn't envision (doing this) 11 years," Norris said.
She learned two important facts: "Parents were clueless about what's in the child's environment and the youth that we teach prevention to from kindergarten on didn't believe in the dangers of drugs or alcohol - or they didn't believe it would happen to them," she said.
For the three-hour Reality Tour, "I decided to do a consequences-driven program," Norris added.
It starts with a drama about a teen who goes from innocence, to experimenting with drugs, to addiction, to death - and how his/her parents are ruined as a result.
"We found that kids don't really want to ruin their parents' lives," Norris said.
First-person accounts include talks from those in law enforcement and young recovering addicts - residents from George Junior Republic have participated in Butler and Armstrong counties - with a question and answer time. Parents are given information to continue monitoring their children at home.
Reality Tour also provides discounted home drug tests for parents to use with their kids.
The tour's been researched through the University of Pittsburgh, and is among 200 programs the federal government endorses, "which is almost unheard of from a grassroots program," Norris said.
"The evidence shows that we change attitudes for using drugs, the perception of harm for using drugs is increased and the willingness to try drugs is decreased," Norris said.
Professionals have become interested in Reality Tour, which Norris struggled with because she has no background in mental health.
"It took a long time to realize I had come onto something," she said. "At Pitt, someone said 'How did you take all the elements of prevention in one program, and I said 'It's not my program, but God's program.'"
Reality Tour generally has an "uncommon dedication from volunteers," Norris noted. In Westmoreland County, 500 people saw it in the four weeks before Christmas.
It's already reached 42 percent of Seneca Valley schools' 500 sixth-graders, which is the highest of all school outreaches nationwide.
In Grove City, volunteers come from Grove City Medical Center, Grove City Police Department, Grove City College student volunteers with Young Life, the high school's Students Against Destructive Decisions and Drama Club and individuals.
"I cannot believe the number of committed volunteers, taking projects left and right on top of their schedules," Motta said. "It's wonderful."
Drugs have changed. Marijuana - the main drug of choice - is grown with much higher THC levels that cause the intoxication-effect, Norris said.
Canada has less regulated marijuana available, she added. The hippie ideal from the 1960s still gives a romantic allure about marijuana-use to youths today, Norris noted.
She remembers seeing San Francisco's Haight Ashbury in the 1960s, with all the hippie activity there, she said. Norris also remembers toddlers "sitting on the curbs not having peace and love while their parents were stoned," she noted, which is never spoken about in pop culture.
"Marijuana has always been a liar," Norris added.
There are so many people "in responsible positions in government and universities trying to rationalize their own use for medical marijuana," she said, and will continue pushing for legalization.
Drug marketing is much more "sophisticated," she noted.
Heroin used to be "cut" with other substances, but now it's given pure to create near-instant addiction, Norris said, adding that's why so many people died during the heroin epidemic in Butler.
Prescription drugs are the second drug of choice, which has always been fueled by "greed from the pharmaceutical companies," she said.
"They give these drugs to everyone," she said, and their "highly addictive" qualities are put in fine print. Doctors "sometimes innocently over-prescribe the meds so patients are comfortable," she said, but they end up hooked.
"We tell parents to go with the Extra Strength Tylenol first and work with their doctors," Norris said.
Pain clinics are a new, money-making fad that often results with so-called patients selling pain medications on the street, Norris said.
Some addictions happen because parents introduce marijuana to their kids; they think it's funny to see children intoxicated, she said. "It's becoming a trend. It's heartbreaking."
A bigger problem "is parents want to be cool, and they'll be there for their right of passage to drink and smoke pot," Norris said. "So many parents have a graduation party at their house because it's 'safe.' You mean, you let my kid do that at your house?"
To an undeveloped brain, smoking marijuana retards their development, Norris said.
Reality Tour "is a way to push back," she noted. "It's for the general public, because substance abuse is an public health issue."
Although the program is mainly run in conjunction with a school district, "It's the first time a Rotary has taken this on as a project," she added. "In Westmoreland County, they have a Lions Club."
Bringing Reality Tour to Grove City came about rather quickly.
Rotary member Jerry Bowser invited Norris to speak to the club in the fall; then members attended a showing in Butler.
"We immediately knew it was a great fit for our community," Motta said.
The local Rotary re-evaluates its projects each year. It annually gave a paperback thesaurus to 7th-graders in the district, which it nixed to free up money to start up Reality Tour.
It will also receive a $2,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office for drug and alcohol awareness, Motta added.
It cost the Rotary $3,500 to purchase the rights to Reality, plus another $1,000 for supplies such as T-shirts, banners, and brochures.
The local tour's first three dates will be from 6 to 9 p.m. March 18, April 15, May 20, and then from 6 to 9 p.m. the second Thursday of every month thereafter in the multi-purpose room of GCMC. The cost is $5, but free to anyone on reduced lunch program.
The Rotary will soon send letters to parents/caretakers of sixth-graders, and will advertise it throughout the school district.
Registration can be made later this month by calling Terry Persch, guidance counselor at Hillview Intermediate Center, or at www.grovecityrotaryclub.org. There is only enough space for 30 kids and 30 parents/caretakers.
Tammi Martin, Hillview principal, will be co-hosting the initial Reality Tour with Chet Leech, who works with a men's rehab facility in Butler.
Martin took her children to see Reality in New Castle. "It's more proactive than reactive," she said. "It's wonderful."
Published Feb. 13, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.