“It is surprising how drugs can ruin your life, your friends, your family and your body,” said North Bergen fifth grader Elizabeth Ormeno a week ago Tuesday, as she reflected on the impact a school anti-drug program has had on her.
Fifth graders from all of the North Bergen elementary schools enjoyed a day of outdoor fun at the Stan Newman Sports Complex to celebrate their graduation from the DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). What began as a drug awareness program in Los Angeles in 1983 has spread nationwide to 75 percent of school districts and more than 43 countries. It also now teaches students about avoiding other problems including gangs and violence.
“Students look forward to DARE day all year long.” -- Robert Bannon
The event marked DARE Day’s 11th year in North Bergen, and a total of 17 years for the program in the township.
North Bergen has close to 600 students in the program including fifth grade participants and eighth grade mentors.
Celebrating a drug-free life
North Bergen sees DARE Day as a way to celebrate youth and their commitment to living a drug-and-violence free life. The day provides excitement-filled attractions and activities in which students can simply be themselves and have fun with friends.
“Today is a great afternoon and we are having a lot of fun,” said Ashley Rodriguez, 11, as she got off the rodeo bull riding attraction.
This year’s event took place on a particularly scorching day but provided relief with a water slide, ice cream, cool drinks, and regular water sprays from the North Bergen Fire Department Fire Truck.
Other attractions included an obstacle course race, a Toy Story inflatable moon walk, a mountain climbing wall, and a dunk tank.
“[Drugs] are not for me,” said Christopher Capo, an 11-year-old fifth grader from Robert Fulton School, re-affirming his pledge to live a drug-free life.
Mayor Nicholas Sacco presided over the opening ceremonies to kick off the day of celebration. DARE graduates sang the song “Reach Out” along with Lori Michaels, who performs the song each year. Students then enjoyed food, refreshments, and other festivities.
“It’s a good day for the children. [DARE] teaches kids at a young age to stay out of trouble,” said Helen Lara, parent of a fifth grader, Tommy Lara, who attends Robert Fulton School.
Teaching modern-day lessons
Beyond the core science-based curriculum that teaches children the skills to live a drug-and-violence-free life, the program also incorporates lessons on modern-day issues and realities that students face in today’s world. North Bergen Police Officer Joseph Sitty Jr., head of the district’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, explained that when DARE first started it didn’t include lessons on prescription drugs, bullying, peer pressure, and internet safety, but it now does.
Officer Sitty is also a state mentor and trains other officers to implement the program. Police officers must undergo special training to teach the DARE program.
“The program is not just ‘Say no to drugs’; it goes one step further and teaches children who to turn to in case of an emergency…to see police officers as friends,” said John Belluardo, the school district’s Student Assistance Resource Program (SARP) Coordinator and DARE Day coordinator along with Sitty.
The program aims to open lines of communication with officers and allows youths to relate to officers as people.
DARE Day reinforces that effort by placing police officers in the dunk tank while fifth graders take turns hitting the bull’s eye. Officer Javier Perez was a good sport as he was dunked over and over into the tank of water.
For 12-year-old fifth grader Aneesah Hazelgreen, dunking Perez was good ole’ “fun.” An aspiring pitcher, she hopes to one day play softball.
DARE Day is made possible with funding from the North Bergen Board of Education, the DARE program, the Governor’s Council, and the Municipal Alliance of Drugs and Alcohol.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.