It was a capacity crowd of kids, parents, officials and volunteers who gathered last night at the Middletown Arts Center to talk about the grim truths of substance abuse and its often chilling effects on lives.
"We have to keep talking about this and educating people, before someone else dies in Middletown," said Mike Slover, chairman of the Middletown Alliance to Prevent Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and its Crossroads at Croydon Hall treatment facility.
That was the intent of last night's event: to come together and reach out to one another on the subject of substance abuse.
The forum, aptly entitled Reaching Out to Prevent Substance Abuse, featured a panel of speakers and exchange of ideas on the subject.
Reaching Out, which is an offshoot of the Middletown Alliance, is in its eighth year. It hosted a spirited, no-nonsense discussion about "the legal, health and personal consequences of alcohol and drug abuse." Kids and parents alike directed questions to certain members of the panel, who gave them the candid answers that they were sometimes surprised to get.
A panel of Alliance members, including police, court and governing body representatives, were on hand to field the questions and the facilitate discussions.
One of the new realities parents and children got a dose of: Oxycontin, and its derivatives, is the drug of choice these days. Raiding parents and grandparents' medicine cabinets, too, often gels into a first-time experience with drugs, rather than marijuana, the former popular first of experimentation.
Nowadays, experts on hand warned, kids are, instead, having what have been dubbed "pharma parties" during which they pool prescription pills from home medicine cabinets, dump them into a bowl and self-medicate in the name of partying. The habit can easily kill, they said.
Another particularly dangerous habit in tandem with kids' abuse of drugs, said longtime counselor at Crossroads, Madolyn Smith, is parents' enabling in the name of the "not my kid" credo of supposed support.
Some of the officials present were: Slover, who, in addition to his role at the Alliance, is a retired Middletown Police detective; Middletown Police Lt. John Maguire, who heads the township police department's Traffic Bureau; Middletown Police Deputy Chief Craig Weber; Middletown Administrator Tony Mercantante; Interim Middletown Schools Superintendent Tom Pagano. Also on the panel was the sister of D.J. Wheeler, a young man who was killed several years ago in a fatal car accident on Middletown-Lincroft Road.
Middletown has had several in the past few months, at least a couple of which can be attributed, in part, to drinking and/or drug abuse.
Adam Sofia, the young driver of the car in the fatal Cooper Road accident a couple of months ago, was just recently arrested and charged with vehicular homicide for the death of his friend and passenger Paul Bradley.
Slover fears no criticism in the face of his recommedation of aggressive methods to stave off substance abuse. "Search your kids' rooms, parents," he said. "It's your house. It's your room. If you can catch them before it's too late, then maybe one more person in Middletown won't die."
Slover began his empassioned quest to educate kids and save lives with the stark truth about drugs and alcohol when, as a cop, decades ago, he befriended Belford drug addict Richie Johnson, whom he had arrested countless times.
During his final arrest of Johnson, Slover siezed weapons and drugs from him and saw that he was especially ill. As he transported him to headquarters, he asked him if he wanted to go to the hospital. Johnson said he was dying of AIDS (from IV drug abuse) and he'd rather die from the drugs at that point. Johnson was high, dying and on his way to jail for the umteenth time.
Slover asked him if he would agree, under the influence and all, to be taped in a plea to kids to turn away from drugs, lest they end up like him. Johnson agreed, grateful to have the opportunity to spread the bad word and do something good before he died.
He sat, impromptu as you can imagine, in the station. He was bleary-eyed, slurring his speech and waving an unashed cigarette in the air as he spoke and pulled up his pant legs and sleeves to reveal ulcerated lesions and track marks from drugs and AIDS. He told his audience, "I know I'm going to die ..."
He pleaded with kids to not end up like him. Not long after that, on a Super Bowl Sunday, Slover was called to the crow weeds in the marshes of Belford to identify Johnson's body. He had overdosed and his "friends" dumped his body. The tape shows it all. That tape has gone international, and Slover's mission to educate through uncensored realism continues to thrive.
He'll tell you that he has no puppets, costumes, balloons or prizes. What he says he has is the truth, as he's seen it over the years, and as kids and parents also need to see it.
Patch taped parts of last night's event and will feature clips as the Middletown Alliance's Truth About Substance Abuse. Stay tuned.