Raising awareness of heroin addiction
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Raising awareness of heroin addiction

Local teen takes on an important issue

The dangers of heroin addiction are highlighted by the Girl Scout projects and school presentations of Stephanie Reifman, 15, of Upper Saddle River.
The dangers of heroin addiction are highlighted by the Girl Scout projects and school presentations of Stephanie Reifman, 15, of Upper Saddle River.

Few doubt that the behavior of celebrities is of major interest to our young people (and, let’s face it, not-so-young people) Some might contend that this influence is purely negative — but that is not always the case.

Horrified by the drug-related death of 31-year-old “Glee” actor Cory Monteith in July 2013, Stephanie Reifman of Upper Saddle River, a sophomore at Northern Highlands Regional High School, was inspired to create a program furthering awareness of heroin addiction.

“When I was going into eighth grade and thinking about my Silver Project for the Girl Scouts” — the 15-year-old Stephanie has been a member of Troop No. 850 since kindergarten — “I heard about his death,” she said. She subsequently learned that the star, who died from a combination of alcohol and heroin, had struggled with addiction during his teenage years.

Stephanie’s project developed into a middle school program, featuring a montage about the dangers of addiction and presentations by recovering addicts. At the event, for which she received help from the Bergen County Department of Health Services, the program organizer interviewed the speakers and invited audience members to ask questions as well.

Staff members at Spring House, Bergen County’s halfway house for women recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, set on the grounds of Bergen Regional Medical Center in Paramus, also were on hand to answer questions.

Not only did the program win Stephanie the Silver Award, but the teen resolved to expand her project, making addiction awareness the goal of her Girl Scout Gold Project as well.

A member of her school’s yearbook committee, student council, and Relay for Life group, which organizes fundraising events to fight cancer, Stephanie also is active in her synagogue, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. Attending both its early childhood program and its religious school, she celebrated her bat mitzvah with the congregation and now is an aide in the religious school.

According to a statement from the Girl Scouts organization, “The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest award a Girl Scout can earn and requires the completion of a leadership project of at least 80 hours. Each girl must discover an issue in the community, connect with experts and community members, and take action to effect positive change.”

For her Gold Award, Stephanie created what she called H.A.P.P.Y. (Heroin Addiction Prevents People’s Years) Week to educate her peers about the dangers of heroin addiction. Pointing out that many outreach efforts “can get very negative,” the teen said she chose that acronym because “I wanted to create a positive spin” while noting that being addicted can cost a person his or her life.

“As the program progressed, I’m doing more and more,” she said; her middle school programs are geared to both parents and students.

While evening programs tend to draw mostly parents, some students attend as well. The day programs “are more like assemblies,” Stephanie said. “The students are interested. Usually they only hear [about this] from an authority figure. I think hearing from a peer appeals to them more.” Also, while they usually hear a third-person perspective, her programs include stories from recovering addicts themselves, as well as from parents who have lost children to drugs.

To expand her project for the Gold Award, Stephanie added more elements to the program itself and more venues for the presentation.

“I expanded the program itself by adding the parents’ view,” she said, noting that after delivering her first program, she heard from parents who had lost children and wanted to help educate other parents and students. She also has begun to visit different schools around the area and soon will go to Glen Rock, Emerson, and Franklin Lakes.

While Stephanie has learned a great deal about the issue of heroin addiction — indeed, she said that Bergen Community College has contacted her about helping to plan an upcoming program — “the biggest thing that surprised me was how much of an epidemic [heroin use] is in Bergen County. When I heard about Cory Monteith, I didn’t understand how relevant and close it is to our own community. Now I see headlines about it everywhere. I’ve met so many amazing people who lost loved ones, and I want to do everything I can to stop it.”

“Heroin addiction is a huge problem in our community,” Stephanie said. In 2013, there were 27 fatal overdoses in Bergen County; in 2014, the number rose to more than 50.

Stephanie said that while “community service is a huge part of what I believe in, being a part of the Girl Scouts keeps this on your mind, giving you community service opportunities.” Not only will she continue running the program she has created, but she is asking her school to ensure that the program will continue after she graduates.

Organizing the program has brought other benefits as well.

“From completing this leadership project, I have learned many skills, such as public speaking, communication, leadership, and organizational skills, as well as how to fight for what I believe in,” she said. “I saw a huge increase in the knowledge of the students at my school.”

Not surprisingly, she said, “putting everything together takes a lot of time.” She created the video montage by herself, designed program flyers and advertisements, talked to speakers in advance to learn their stories, set up the programs with the schools, and basically “took care of every detail.” While she was expected to devote 80 hours to the project, “it was way north of 100 hours” for both the Gold and Silver Awards.

Still, she said, she is seeing “so many amazing benefits… with more people able to share their stories and help people. It makes me so happy.”

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