Kearny Coalition tackles addiction on high school level

 A dozen Kearny youths will be heading to summer camp in rural Warren County come Aug. 20. Yes, there’ll be sports, swimming and the like, but there’ll also be a serious side to their sojourn in the sticks.

They’ll be among 300 kids from around the state who’ve volunteered to participate in the Lindsey Meyer Teen Institute at YMCA Camp Mason in Hardwick to strategize ways to create positive changes in themselves, their schools and communities.

An arm of the Secaucus-based nonprofit Partners in Prevention (PIP), LMTI counselors will guide students in discussions about substance abuse issues that have impacted their localities and what they can do to help would-be victims find alternative outlets.

PIP is also providing training and support services to the Kearny Municipal Alliance under a 5-year federal Drug Free Communities grant program running through Sept. 30, 2022, at $125,000 a year, to promote “awareness, prevention and education on underage drinking and the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs.”

The youth-focused campaign, designed to utilize all appropriate local stakeholders, is being waged by the Kearny Prevention Coalition led by program director, retired Kearny Police Department Deputy Chief Jack Corbett Sr.; project coordinator and retired school counselor Jane Mackesy; and assistant project coordinator Cathy Santos.

Kiara Santos, a Kearny High School senior, said she heard about the program from her mom and signed up “because of the fact that I could be with people equally motivated” to help prevent the spread of drug abuse among her peers.

“I want to be sober,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to go down that road.”

St. Dominic Academy sophomore Breanna Munoz, who is friends with one of the Institute counselors, is looking forward to “meeting new people, exploring new areas.”

When the students return from camp, they’ll work with adult advisers to develop an “action plan” to help divert at-risk youths from falling prey to potentially addictive drug habits.

This plan will be “a work in progress,” Mackesy said, because this fall, the coalition will survey KHS kids to get their thinking on the types of substance abuse pitfalls they feel are most injurious to their peers in the community.

“We hope to have the survey results by January or February,” she said, and that data will help inform the anti-drug strategies to be developed as part of the action plan. A prior survey, done in 2016, showed kids were most concerned about smoking and under-age drinking.

Mackesy noted this year’s survey will include questions about e-cigarettes (“vapes”), given their recent appearance on the retail market.

An action plan can also involve adults, Mackesy said. A Lyndhurst anti-drug coalition, for example, came up with a “Hidden in Plain Sight” scenario where parents explored a mock-up teen bedroom to learn where kids might be hiding drug paraphernalia.

Drug overdoses have taken their toll in Kearny and the Kearny Prevention Coalition (KPC) is mindful that young people are too often victims.

“This is a tragedy involving so many of our young adults — good people,” Mackesy said. “Some of my former students have gotten hooked and some are trying hard to get and stay clean.”

The problem, she said, is that “young kids think they can stop whenever they want and unfortunately, that’s not the case. Today, so many drugs are laced with other things they don’t know about and are even more harmful. And because these drugs are stronger, the addictive factor is higher. Plus, drugs today are so much more prevalent, available, and kids know where to get them.”

Now, with the possible legalizing of pot for adult recreational use on the horizon in New Jersey, and “hearing that marijuana is now legal in several states, that gives kids the perception it’s not such a risk,” Mackesy said, “so I’m concerned about the problems that may result from decriminalization of marijuana.”

Under terms of the federal grant, the Kearny Prevention Coalition (KPC) pays PIP $22,000 a year to mentor Kearny’s drug prevention effort; it pays Epiphany Community Services of Ohio, $8,500 a year for “evaluation services”; and it pays REACHing Software, also of Ohio, $2,000 a year for creating and updating online database services. Mackesy and Corbett each receive $15,000 a year and Santos gets $30,000 a year. And there are fees for staff training. Mackesy and Corbett have attended such sessions in D.C. and Atlantic City; Santos is now training in Alabama.

As part of its grant requirement for “in-kind contributions,” KPC maintains an office space at the Kearny Health Department, conducts monthly meetings at the Kearny Girl Scout House and conducts periodic seminars online.  

KPC will be represented at National Night Out in Kearny on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 6-8 p.m., along Belgrove Drive. “We’ll be giving out water bottles and frisbees and playing games under the banner, ‘I’ve Got Better Things to Do Than Drugs,’” Mackesy said.

To learn more about the town’s anti-drug efforts, guests are welcome to attend KPC meetings, the third Monday of each month, starting at 11:45 a.m., at the Girl Scout House on Kearny Avenue.

Ron Leir | Special to the Observer

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.