Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis visited Swanson Rd. Intermediate School Monday morning for some frank discussion with the 5th graders about drug and alcohol abuse. Accompanied by Auburn School Resource Officer, Brian Kennedy, and a number of Auburn High School CARE students (an outreach program of Auburn Youth and Family Services), Evangelidis did a terrific job engaging the group of 9 and 10 year olds while discussing an admittedly difficult topic.
The Sheriff Office’s Face2Face program was created by Evangelidis, and is the only program of its kind in the country, according to Kimberly Roy, Director of External Affairs for the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Evangelidis has had plenty of practice at this; “We’ve presented to over 182,000 students at over 100 schools” he said before Monday’s presentation. “We do about one of these a week.” Most of these presentations are to middle and high school students around Worcester County.
On the surface, 5th grade may seem a bit young for this topic, but not according to Evangelidis. “Given the opioid crisis we are facing, education has to start early” he said. “We were recruited here by (School Resource Officer) Brian Kennedy to present to this age. We did modify the presentation from the one we use with the middle and high school students” Evangelidis added.
While not graphic, the presentation was eye-opening, as much for some of the adults in the room as for the students. Evangelidis started with a bit of humor, telling students he could read minds. “Think of a question to ask me,” he told them. “Okay, I know what it is. And the answer is I am 6 feet 7 and a half inches tall” joked the towering sheriff.
“No one thinks they are going to go to prison” Evangelidis continued, as images from one of the prison cells at the Worcester County House of Corrections played on the screen behind him. He went on to explain how prisoners are stripped of many privileges, any items that could be used as weapons, and even toilet seats on the commodes in the cells. Then he brought out a prison uniform to show the students, letting some of them feel the stiff fabric. “These are not made for comfort. They are made to be durable. These are 100% polyester.”
Evangelidis said almost 90% of today’s inmates are incarcerated due to addiction issues, and he asked the students why they thought people would choose to get involved with drugs. The students’ responses made clear that they are not naive to society’s drug issues. “Stress,” answered one student. “Depression,” said another. “They think it’s cool, said a third.” Most of the SWIS students had met prior in small groups with an Auburn High School CARE student mentor prior to Evangelidis’ visit.
Auburn High School seniors Ann Marie Graves and Danielle Gilchrest were among the CARE student mentors on hand observing Evangelidis’ presentation. “We meet with the young students in small groups each week, and talk about a different topic” said Graves. “Our last one was about peer pressure,” she added.
Some of the questions from the youngsters can be challenging for the CARE mentors. “We had one about depression” said Gilchrest. “That was kind of hard to answer.”
Evangelidis touched on a number of misconceptions about drug use, notably that there are no “safe drugs” like marijuana is sometimes called, because it is just a plant. “Cocaine, opium, those are made from natural ingredients, too” he told the students. “And lots of drugs are made with dangerous chemicals, or things are added to them that make them more dangerous.”
One segment of the presentation showed before and after photos of well-known celebrities who became involved with abusing drugs, such as Macaulay Culkin and Lindsay Lohan. Evangelidis also incorporated images of some of the inmates they have encountered over the years. The drastic changes in the appearances of these individuals drew gasps and surprise from the students.
Kimberly Roy also demonstrated a new 3D photographic technology to reporters. The new app will allow the presenter to take an iPad photo and alter how the person would appear after opiate abuse, alcohol abuse, or using crystal meth. In the near future, the Sheriff’s office will incorporate the app and photos into the presentation in real-time, using actual students from that day’s audience.
According to Officer Kennedy, while Auburn sees its share of issues related to drugs and the growing opioid problem, they have not seen the opioids trickle into the schools. “It’s more an issue of pills” said Kennedy. “Things like ADHD medications that can be abused, but can be obtained easily. The kids are wise to that.”
As Evangelidis wrapped his presentation, he asked if there were questions from the students. “I can take a couple questions” he said, as probably 30 hands shot into the air. If there were any question about whether these students were engaged in the program, it was quickly put to rest. “Why do they make drugs?” ” Do you send drug dealers to jail?” “Is smoking as bad as drugs?” The questions continued for almost 30 minutes.
“Addiction,” Evangelidis concluded, “can happen to any family. Life is about choices. Everyone eventually has to make a choice about whether to get involved with drugs and alcohol. We want you to make the right choice.”