In the summer of 2013, when Stephanie Reifman of Upper Saddle River was 13, Cory Monteith — one of her favorite actors — died of a heroin overdose.
“I was devastated,” she said. “I loved him and I loved ‘Glee,’” the TV program he starred in. “I was also curious. I didn’t really know about the problem of drug abuse, so I started to do some research.”
What she found as she continued to explore the issue was that in 2013, 26 people in Bergen County alone died from a heroin overdose; in 2014, that number rose to 42. “And it continues to climb,” she said. “I know that law enforcement officials go to schools to speak about this and show montages of people who died, but I thought that if I could tell my peers that this was something I cared about, it might help them relate to it at a more personal level. And I wanted to incorporate them into the conversation.”
To accomplish her goal, Stephanie created what she called H.A.P.P.Y. Week — the acronym stands for Heroin Addiction Prevents People’s Years. Students in the program go to an assembly where they see a short informational video — which Stephanie created — followed by a segment in which she interviews both a recovering heroin addict and a parent whose child has died of an overdose.
“I draw out their stories through interview questions,” Stephanie said.
When she was 13, Stephanie approached the alcohol and drug abuse division of the Bergen County Department of Health and Human Services for advice on securing potential speakers. She was put in touch with Spring House, the county’s halfway house for women recovering from alcohol and drug abuse.
Since then, Spring House has provided speakers — generally ranging in age from 22 to 28 — for each of the 40 presentations Stephanie has arranged for schools, synagogues, and youth groups. The first one was at her own middle school, and featured a recovering addict. At other times, the speaker has been a bereaved parent.
The network of speakers grew organically. A father whose child died of an overdose “read a news article about my program and reached out and offered to speak,” Stephanie said. “Four other parents stepped forward also. It helps them to talk about it.” It helps other students as well. “Kids don’t think about the impact addiction has on relationships. Getting to hear how it affects a parent — whose only relationship now is putting flowers on a child’s grave — is very powerful.”
Following each presentation, students can ask questions. And they do, Stephanie said, “sometimes going up to the speakers after the session to hug them or offer their condolences.”
Now 18 and a recent graduate of Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, Stephanie estimates that her program has reached some 15,000 students Indeed, her tremendous success in educating her fellow students has been recognized with a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award.
The statement announcing this year’s awards noted that they “recognize young changemakers who are committed to undertaking the most urgent and pressing challenges faced by communities around the globe.” Fifteen students were selected. Each will receive $36,000 “in support of their philanthropic vision.”
In her application, Stephanie wrote, “Upon researching heroin addiction, I found that it was an epidemic and it was right in my own backyard. I knew then that I wanted to prevent more senseless deaths from occurring, so I created H.A.P.P.Y. Week to educate students on the dangers of heroin.” As simple as it sounds, it was a challenge.
When she was 13, “I had to push people to believe in me,” she said. “I had to fight to prove I could do it. But the principal gave me a chance.” The Diller Award, she said, helps validate her efforts. She is also excited about the opportunity to meet and network with 14 other young social activists, and to talk about their projects as well as her own.
Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, the director of congregation education at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, nominated Stephanie for the Diller Award. Rabbi Kniaz said, “I knew that Stephanie was a perfect candidate for this award. My biggest challenge in nominating her was that she had so many chesed and tzedakah activities and leadership roles that I struggled mightily to limit my responses to the word limits provided for each question in the form.”
Rabbi Kniaz has known Stephanie since 2008, when she was in third grade. “She was an excellent student, beloved by all her teachers and peers. When she entered the eighth grade, Stephanie began volunteering as a classroom aide on Sundays and on holidays. She is also very active in BBYO, which is housed in our building.”
For her work on preventing heroin addiction, Rabbi Kniaz said, “Stephanie has been recognized as one of the 50 CBS New York People to Know, received the Prudential Spirit of Community Award, was invited by her mayor to serve on the town council, and inducted into the Hall of Fame by the American Association of University Women. I am in awe of what she has accomplished.”
Stephanie, who maintains a website, happyweek.org, said that her 15-year-old sister, Melissa, who will begin her sophomore year of high school in September, is preparing to take over H.A.P.P.Y. Week. Melissa has been shadowing her older sister all year, learning about the program. Stephanie is confident that it will continue to grow.
Stephanie plans to go to the University of Michigan in the fall; she wants to major in communications. And while she will look into creating a H.A.P.P.Y. Week program in Michigan, she thinks the program is better suited for middle schools and high schools, “to prevent people from getting involved with drugs” at a young age. Still, she hopes to create a model drug prevention curriculum for other schools around the country.
“Jewish values inform Stephanie’s actions and imbue everything she does,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “Her menschlichkeit is evident in her everyday interactions with others. I have seen her unite her peers and include those who tend to be excluded. H.A.P.P.Y. Week is not her only chesed/tikkun olam activity. She organizes tzedakah fundraisers through BBYO, raising over $20,000 for breast cancer research every year since she was in eighth grade.
“As exceptional as the H.A.P.P.Y. Week program is, it is even more amazing when you meet Stephanie. She is tiny, quiet, and modest. She overcame her shyness to advocate for her program before social workers, school administrators, and politicians, and to speak in front of large audiences. She was determined and never took ‘no’ for an answer.
“In interviews, Stephanie needs to be flexible and improvise,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “She has learned how to follow the lead of her interviewees and draw them out if they are nervous. In her relentless effort to save lives, Stephanie transformed herself. She is a giborat hayil — a mighty hero.”