Ten years ago, concerned about her Butler community, Norma Norris left her job to start a drug awareness program. Today, that community-based program, The Reality Tour, is a nationally recognized one.
Murrysville Alliance Church is hosting the 3-hour event at 6:30 p.m. next Thursday and again on Dec. 18 at the church on Old William Penn Highway.
November’s RealityTour will mark the first in what will be a monthly opportunity for parents and children, ages 10 to 17, to experience the consequences of substance abuse through dramatic re-enactments, testimonials and education from local officials.
The Reality Tour has been listed in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices since 2011.
“We felt that it was very important to have in our community. We wanted to be proactive and not reactive,” said Pastor Dan Lawrence.
Police Chief Thomas Seefeld will talk about drug use and a Murrysville officer will conduct a mock arrest at the upcoming events.
“We’re very fortunate in Murrysville as far as juveniles go … a little alcohol-related incidences,” but usually the drug problems are with the adults, he said.
According to the Westmoreland County Drug Task Force, so far this year there have been 63 confirmed drug overdose deaths in the county. Twenty-nine are heroin related. Many of these are older adults, Chief Seefeld said.
“Our hope is to bring parents and kids together and let them know there are consequences for their actions,” he said.
The church purchased the license for the program model for $3,500 from Ms. Norris’ umbrella organization, CANDLE Inc. which is devoted to preventing substance abuse. The “tours” are managed by about 35 local volunteers who follow carefully scripted narratives and other guidelines.
Ms. Norris created the program after hearing a law enforcement officer interviewed on radio comment on the growth of heroin use among high school students. The parent of three sons, she said she noticed holes in existing prevention methods.
“Youth were given preventative education from K through 12, and either they didn’t believe what we were telling them or they didn’t think it would happen to them … and kids thought their parents were clueless,” she said.
Using her 20 years of radio writing experience, Ms. Norris authored scripts for the re-enactments based on research and numerous interviews she had with addicts, law enforcement officials, those in recovery and parents. Those taking the tour witness scenes from an emergency room, jail — and funeral home.
In the summer of 2003, she held the first Reality Tour at the YMCA in Butler, intending to conduct it only two or three times. But response was so positive, parents asked for more. In 2004 she left her job and officially founded the program.
“CANDLE received a grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation to enter into a research agreement with the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy,” Ms. Norris said.
In 2007, that research found that the Reality Tour increased the perception of harm for drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
On average, she said, about 60 people attend a program. Reality Tours held each month at the Greensburg Courthouse average 100 attendees, and November and December dates already are filled.
The model and license package to conduct a Reality Tour includes the re-enactment narratives, a 150-page program manual, sustainability training to use once a program is up and running, a CD with print materials that can be distributed and access to promotional materials, said Ms. Norris.
Many communities receive grant money to purchase the model.
Twenty-nine percent of the counties in Pennsylvania have a community with a Reality Tour, and there are Reality Tours in five other states, including a site in California added last week. Earlier this month Ms. Norris adapted a program, using Canadian statistics, for Russell Township, 30 miles from Ottawa, Canada.
“I never ever imagined there would be this much demand for the program,” she said.
Parent Michele Kondas attended a trial run at Murrysville Alliance in September with her 11-year-old daughter, Emily. She said it was good for Emily to hear about the potential devastation of drug abuse.
“We talked about it afterward, and she said ‘Mum, I’m not exposed to that now,’ but I said ‘You’re getting older, and you’re going to be,’ ” she said.
Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: email@example.com