Sheriff’s Dept. gives kids early look at perils of substance abuse

Worcester Telegram & Gazette
By Ellie Oleson

Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis is on a mission to prevent future drug and alcohol abuse among youths in Worcester County.

He is presenting his Face2Face program to students at high schools and middle schools, where he seems to be lobbying to limit overcrowding at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston.

“Ninety percent of our 1,200 inmates say they are in there because of alcohol and drug abuse, which provide a direct path to prison. I don’t want these kids to make the same mistakes the inmates did. I’m trying to push buttons, to hit every button,” Mr. Evangelidis said.

While he uses the same video clips, photographs and props at each talk, he tailors his presentation to his audience for the strongest impact.

Speaking to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public School yesterday, Mr. Evangelidis gave a message apparently was so powerful, one student vomited after seeing graphic depictions of the effect of alcohol and drug abuse.

Common problems include brain and liver damage; “meth mouth,” blackened teeth caused by methamphetamine abuse; missing cartilage in the nose and holes in the roof of the mouth from sniffing cocaine; and pockmarked skin, premature wrinkles, enlarged pores and discoloration caused by drug and alcohol abuse.

Kathleen M. Greenwood, executive director at the school, said, “Fortunately, drugs are not a big problem in our schools. This is more precautionary than reactionary for us. I thought this program was awesome. How powerful was that presentation? Someone vomited,” she said.

Mr. Evangelidis showed students a wide variety of household products, from bleach and ammonia to drain cleaner and hydrogen peroxide that are mixed together, crystallized and sold as “meth.”

“Drug dealers only care about making a buck. They don’t care about you,” Mr. Evangelidis said.

After seeing the presentation, Abby Kelley eighth-grader Tiffany D. Guerrero, 13, said, “I know people who use drugs and I try to tell them not to. I would never do drugs.”

“I thought the sheriff told us a lot of useful information,” said eighth-grader Zachary D. Rider, 15.

Eighth-grade twins Patricia B. and Dalila B. Constante, 14, who hope to work for the FBI, both said they were impressed by the program.

“It was educational. I never knew alcohol can cause so much damage,” Patricia said.

“Taking drugs with bleach and all that can really hurt your body. It was scary,” Dalila said.

The sheriff told students to make good choices, and showed the consequences for some who did not.

He held up a huge black-and-white striped jail-issued outfit worn by inmates, and said it was designed for durability, not fashion, fit or comfort.

There was a video of a bored inmate sitting in a small cell with no toilet seat or towel, and no privacy, since he is on camera 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It’s my job to provide care, custody and control. They don’t get to choose their clothes or food. They gave up those rights,” Mr. Evangelidis said.

“The inmates all sat in chairs just like yours. They had the same world of endless possibilities you have. They wish they could turn back the clock and start over, but they can’t. You make choices every day. Good choices lead to good things; bad choices lead to bad things.”

He showed before-and-after photographs of stars such as Charlie Sheen, Whitney Houston and Lindsay Lohan, who destroyed promising careers through drug abuse, and he put up a collage of celebrities, including Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger and Jimi Hendrix, who died from substance overdoses.

“They would all give up their fame and fortune to be alive today. They died because they made bad choices,” the sheriff said.

There was a series of before and computer-generated after photos of students and teachers at each school, showing the devastating impact three years of drug use could have on their appearance.

There were brief videos about a pretty cheerleader who died of a drug overdose and of a boy who survived, but just barely and was left severely brain damaged.

There were film clips from the life of former college basketball star Len Bias, who was chosen by the Celtics, but never had the chance to play for them.

“He believed the myth that trying drugs one time won’t hurt you. He died the first time he tried drugs. Once you get high, it changes everything,” Mr. Evangelidis said.

He blasted several other common myths, such as one that pills are not as bad as needles, another that “I can quit any time I want,” and a third that marijuana is all right because it is “a natural substance. So are heroin, cocaine and alcohol. Marijuana is not safe. It’s a gateway drug that leads to other drugs,” he said.

Mr. Evangelidis said he opposed legalization of medical marijuana, since this likely would lead to “rampant abuse.”

He said his own family had been affected by drug and alcohol abuse, as have most families.

“I hear inmates every day saying they wish they had never tried drugs. No one has ever said someone looks better after drugs than before.”

The message seemed to reach students.

“I would never do drugs. They’re not good for your body,” said Francesca R. Zona, 13, an eighth-grader at the Auburn Middle School where Mr. Evangelidis spoke on Jan. 25.

Classmate Lily F. White, 14, said, “You don’t feel like you when you take drugs. People think the drugs will make them better. They won’t.”

Auburn Police Officer Brian C. Kennedy, school resource officer, said, “Let’s hope they get the message. This is where it starts, especially with marijuana and prescription pills, like Ritalin and Adderall. I’ve had to summons middle school and high school kids to court.”

Joseph T. Gagnon, principal at the Auburn school, said Mr. Evangelidis’ program was informative and, hopefully, had an impact on his students.

“The sheriff is very well-spoken and had good rapport with the kids. I was impressed.”

Mr. Evangelidis has also presented his program at South High Community School in Worcester and at high schools and middle schools in Southboro, Leominster, Sutton, Spencer, Clinton, Leicester, Southbridge, Gardner and Grafton. He plans to visit schools in Oxford, Charlton, Holden, West Boylston and Athol in the next few weeks.

He said the program was funded by donations from “individuals and businesses who, like me, believe education can lead to prevention.”

“We are just trying to make some kids think twice before starting to use drugs or alcohol. I love doing this, and would do this every day, if I had time. I get a lot from the audience and hope they get a lot from me,” he said.

Mr. Evangelidis said parents can do their part.

“Be proactive. Monitor what your kids are doing on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t turn a blind eye. If you wait too long, it could be too late.”