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Janene Gentile

A free alcohol testing kit comes with one urination cup and test strip. Photo from Suffolk County Sheriff's Office

A new Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department program is looking to keep kids safe this prom and graduation season, while creating a way for parents to more easily open a dialogue with kids about underage drinking and drugs.

“We just want everyone to be prepared,” Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said. “It’s a celebratory moment for people graduating high school and moving on, and they feel a little empowered.”

On May 22 the sheriff’s office announced it is passing out free alcohol and drug testing kits.

“This is not supposed to be a punishment, and I don’t believe that was ever the purpose. It’s important to show kids that they can have fun without being high or drinking.”

— Janene Gentile

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death for people in the United States between the ages of 15 and 24 is motor vehicle crashes. In Suffolk County, the leading causes of motor vehicle crashes are driving while ability impaired by alcohol or dugs and reckless or distracted driving.

The test kits include standard urine test that contains a single cup and stick that changes color depending on the presence of alcohol.

“We want parents to ask tough questions and [have] tough discussions early on so that they don’t get the knock on the door by a police officer telling them that their child is in the hospital or telling them that their child was driving while intoxicated,” Toulon said. “We would rather let them take care of their children so that law enforcement does not [have to] get involved.”

The North Shore Youth Council already offers these kits. Executive Director Janene Gentile said she doesn’t see the kits as a punitive measure, but as a way for parents to more easily talk about the topic with their children.

“Drinking is cultural in our society, but it’s an adult choice and not a young person’s choice,” she said.
“This is not supposed to be a punishment, and I don’t believe that was ever the purpose. It’s important to show kids that they can have fun without being high or drinking.”

Local schools have long tried to curb drug and alcohol use at prom while still trying to ensure graduating classes celebrate the final days before graduation.

Frank Pugliese said in his first year as principal of Shoreham-Wading River High School, he hopes his students can enjoy prom while staying safe.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but please be responsible in your actions so you do not harm yourself or anyone else.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

“We strongly advise all students to always make appropriate decisions,” Pugliese said in an email. “With that being said, we have great students. The vast majority make smart choices regardless of the policies in place, and we trust that they will continue to do so on prom night.”

Smithtown High School West participates in the county District Attorney’s Office new Choices and Consequences program that shows the dangers of reckless and drunk driving. Members of the DA’s office will be in the high school June 18.

In a letter to students, Smithtown West High School Principal John Coady said anyone caught drinking during prom will be suspended and kicked out. Prom tickets will not be refunded, and the student may be barred from the graduation ceremony.

Fifty alcohol and 25 drug testing kits were sent out to numerous schools to kick off the program. The kits are also available free at each Suffolk County legislator’s office and will remain offered through the North Shore Youth Council.

Each alcohol testing kit costs .74 cents while drug testing kits are $1.50. The $5,000 program is being paid for with asset forfeiture funds.

“I would like for all of them to enjoy the moment,” Toulon said of seniors attending prom and graduation. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but please be responsible in your actions so you do not harm yourself or anyone else.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker speaks during a press conference July 25 about creating a permanent panel to address the ever-growing opioid crisis. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

Following another year of rising opioid use and overdoses, Suffolk County officials announced legislation that would create a new permanent advisory panel to try to address the issue.

“We have lost people from this [problem],” Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said during a July 25 press conference. “Children have died, adults have died and we’re here to do more.”

The panel would have 24 members, including representatives from health and science groups, members of law enforcement, hospital employees and individuals from the Legislature’s Committees on Health, Education and Human Services and would focus on prevention, education, law enforcement and drug rehabilitation across the county, Anker said. The panel is planned to be broken up into sub-committees, which would tackle a specific area.

“This is an issue that needs all hands on deck,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini said. “We are not going to arrest ourselves out of this — this is a public health issue [of historic proportion], but law enforcement plays a critical role.”

Over 300 people from Suffolk County died from opioid-related overdosess in 2016, according to county medical examiner records. Sini said that in 2016, the police administered Narcan, a nasal spray used as emergency treatment to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, in Suffolk County over 700 times.

A 2010 bill saw the creation of a similar advisory panel with 13 members, many of whom are members of the new proposed panel. The original, impermanent panel ended five years ago, but had made 48 recommendations to the legislature focused mainly on prevention education, treatment and recovery. Two recommendations from this committee that were put in effect were the Ugly Truth videos shown in public schools, and countywide public Narcan training.

Though proud of the work they did on that panel, members agreed the situation has worsened since it was disbanded.

“[Seven] years ago we stood here and announced the initial panel — I had the privilege of co-chairing that group — a lot of the things we recommended actually happened, some things didn’t,” said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association. “Regardless, the problem hasn’t gotten any better, and in fact, it’s gotten progressively worse. Some of the gaps in prevention, access to treatment, recovery and law enforcement haven’t yet been filled. For us to have an ongoing opportunity to have a dialogue together — to brainstorm some new solution to disrupt the patterns here — is very, very valuable.”

On the education side, Islip School District Superintendent of Schools Susan Schnebel said at the press conference that education has to begin at a very young age.

“It’s important that schools take hold of what happens in the beginning,” she said. “That includes educating students at a very early age, educating the parents to know what’s there, what are the repercussions, what is the law. That needs to happen with a 5 or 6-year-old.”

Executive director of the North Shore Youth Council Janene Gentile, and member of the proposed panel, feels that the advisory panel is an important step. She said she hopes that it will be able to do more in helping prevent people, especially young people, from using opioids in the first place, and hopefully help those exiting rehab.

“Implementing a family component when they are in rehab is really crucial, while they are in rehab and when get out,” Gentile said. “There are other agencies like mine — 28 in Suffolk County. If we can reach out to them they can help with re-entry [into society]. They go on the outside and the triggers that started them on opioids are still there, and they need to have places where there are no drugs. We’ve gone through a lot, but we’ve got to do more — and prevention works.”

Members of the North Shore Youth Council. Photo from North Shore Youth Council

By Kevin Redding

At a time on Long Island when more and more young people are falling victim to substance abuse and social isolation, the North Shore provides kids of all ages with a secure environment in the form of a not-for-profit, community-based agency geared toward youth and family services, community education and, of course, plenty of fun.

The North Shore Youth Council, based in Rocky Point and formed as a grassroots organization in 1982 by local volunteers working together with the Town of Brookhaven and local school districts, has a presence in each school within the Shoreham-Wading River, Rocky Point, Miller Place and Mount Sinai districts through counseling and programs held before and after school hours.

The agency encourages those entering kindergarten to those in college to stay out of trouble and develop the skills needed to be good, successful adults.

Children play games after school. Photo from North Shore Youth Council

“We provide that safe place for kids to go to,” executive director Janene Gentile said. “[For instance], the afternoon program we have is a place where kids can go instead of going to their empty houses. As we know, youth really get in trouble more during after-school hours. We also provide activities for parents who can’t take their kids to clubs. It’s a special place where people don’t feel intimidated … and kids feel comfortable here.”

She said the NSYC also serves as a full life cycle in that the younger kids in kindergarten who come through the programs often become mentors once they reach middle school and high school.

The agency provides plenty of mentoring and volunteer opportunities that prepare kids for their careers and get them involved in community service, and many of them work in the summer programs offered and continue being involved well into their college years.

Last year, the agency provided about 130 kids with job opportunities.

Miller Place High School senior Treicy Wan, 17, has been involved in the organization since eighth grade and is currently a senior counselor.

“This place really helps to bring you out of your shell, helps you to interact with your community and gives you a sense of being somewhere and being part of something,” Wan said. “I love making the other kids happy, knowing they go through hard times and that I was once there, and now I can be a mentor for them and help make a difference in their lives.”

Gentile, a drug and alcohol counselor by trade, is involved in many of the intervention and prevention programs offered through the organization, including Alateen for those who are coping with problems they didn’t cause and have no control over.

“We’re going through times of hate and discrimination and violence and suicide and substance abuse and we’re going to be here to pick up the pieces and the damages,” Gentile said. “We need to break through that and educate them that this is a safe world. This is a safe place for everyone.”

Members of the knitting club make garments. Photo from North Shore Youth Council

Among the many other programs offered are Big Buddy Little Buddy, a cross-age mentoring initiative that matches up a high school student with a younger student in an effort to encourage social skill development and help children make friends; Homework Helpers, where high school students volunteer their time to help others who might need extra help with their schoolwork; and School Age Child Care, which provides peace of mind to parents looking for a safe place for their elementary school children.

Dana Ellis, one of the mental health counselors who works predominantly with students with special needs, said the program is good for the Rocky Point community.

“We just want to help people,” she said. “With mental health, it’s tough to get programs started and I think there’s a lot of freedom here to start things, get community feedback and then watch them grow.”

All of the programs are made affordable for low-income families, and every dollar the agency makes goes back to the community through scholarships, which serve to help struggling families pay for things like clothes and books.

NSYCAfter school, the cafeteria at Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School becomes a giant playground for elementary-aged kids. There’s a crochet club where children can learn to make accessories like earmuffs, full access to tabletop games and Legos, snacks and drinks and an area where kids can do their homework together. As staff pointed out, everybody interacts, and there’s something for every kid.

“We get to play games together and have fun, we do dodgeball in the gym, we work together and learn to be good and honest,” said 10-year-old Christian.

Marcie Wilson, assistant director at NSYC, said one of her fondest memories at the organization was when she attended the once-a-month “open mic night” for middle and high school students, whose singing, dancing and instrument playing blew her away. She said that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s available.

“We’re an underused resource in this community,” Wilson said. “We’re just trying to get the word out to let people know we’re there.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco signs $10,000 check presented with Legislator Sarah Anker, on right, to the North Shore Youth Council for a new family counseling initiative to combat substance abuse. Photo from sheriff's office

A strong support system is vital in a fight against drug abuse, and now North Shore families will have more options to help struggling loved ones manage their addiction.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco delivered a check for $10,000 to the North Shore Youth Council in Rocky Point this week, which will be designated for its new family counseling initiative to combat substance abuse. The grant, which is funded from the sheriff’s office asset forfeiture monies, will engage whole families in therapy designed to help them cope, understand the root causes of addiction and support their loved one’s recovery.

Anker proposed the pilot initiative following a conversation with Father Frank Pizzarelli from Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker and Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco with members of the North Shore Youth Council after presenting the check for it's new substance abuse program. Photo from sheriff's office
Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker and Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco with members of the North Shore Youth Council after presenting the check for it’s new substance abuse program. Photo from sheriff’s office“Father Frank is on the frontlines in our battle against addiction in Suffolk County,” she said. “He impressed upon me the importance of the family unit in successfully treating addiction.”

When Anker approached the sheriff about the possibility of using asset forfeiture funds dedicated for this purpose, DeMarco was all in favor of the project.

“Family therapy can lower relapse rates, help parents with addicted children find effective ways to support their loved one’s recovery and even help children with addicted parents deal with their struggles,” he said. “ I am hoping this initiative will serve as a model and get more families involved in recovery.”

The North Shore Youth Council serves communities across the North Shore, including Port Jefferson, Wading River, Middle Island, Ridge and Coram. The agency helps hundreds of families each day through their school-based prevention and before and after care programs. According to the youth council’s Executive Director Janene Gentile, many people within the community can’t afford family counseling, because money is tight due to lost wages and the cost of treatment.

“Treatment is the first step, but ongoing family therapy is often essential to getting to the root of the problems that led someone to use drugs in the first place,” she said. “This grant will defer the cost of family counseling, which will eliminate the most common barrier to families engaging in therapy.

North Shore Youth Council’s Board President Laurel Sutton joined with Gentile in thanking the County sheriff and legislator for their support.

“I want to thank Sheriff DeMarco and Legislator Anker for giving us this opportunity to enhance our counseling services to struggling families impacted by the opioid [problem],” she said.

For more information about the family counseling initiative, or to schedule an appointment with a counselor, call the North Shore Youth Council at 631-744-0207.

Tracey Budd poses for a photo with her son Kevin Norris, who died of a heroin overdose in 2012. Photo from Tracey Budd

Tracey Budd’s son died of a heroin overdose in September 2012.

One year later, Budd, of Rocky Point, was asked to speak at the North Shore Youth Council. Since then, she’s ended up on a public service announcement, “Not My Child,” that’s shown in high schools and middle schools along the North Shore, aiding her in becoming an advocate for drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation. She also teamed up with another mother, Debbie Longo, of Miller Place, and the two have become advocates for prevention and rehabilitation along the North Shore.

It is because of their hard work and dedication to this issue on Long Island that they are 2015 Times Beacon Record Newspapers People of the Year.

“I made the decision not to be ashamed of how he passed away,” Budd said about her son. “Just from speaking that one time at North Shore Youth Council, it was so very healing for me, and so many things have come from that and taken me in a direction that I never thought I’d be in, but it seems like it’s my calling.”

Janene Gentile, a drug and alcohol counselor and executive director of the North Shore Youth Council, helped work on that PSA.

“It was very powerful,” she said. “It was walking her through her grief. She has a lot of courage.”

Budd, who is also a member of Families in Support of Treatment, pulled together as much information as she could, and this past October created a Facebook page — North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates — pooling together families from Rocky Point, Miller Place, Mount Sinai and Shoreham-Wading River to spread the word about the rising concern over dangerous drugs, like heroin, growing in popularity across the Island.

“It just seemed that so many people were inboxing me and asking me for help,” she said. “I created the page so we could have a centralized area where we share information, and organize meetings where the group could all meet up. I also organized meetings once a month so we could to teach people about advocacy.”

Having a 12-year-old daughter, Cristina Dimou attended the meetings to begin to gather information on the issue. About one week ago, someone Dimou knows suffered an unexpected overdose, she said. She immediately reached out to Budd asking for guidance.

Debbie Longo speaks at a Dan’s Foundation for Recovery event. Photo from Facebook
Debbie Longo speaks at a Dan’s Foundation for Recovery event. Photo from Facebook

“She gave me three phone numbers telling me who to call for what and even gave me websites of rehabilitation centers,” Dimou said about Budd. “She checks up on me every day, asking me if I’m okay and what’s going on. I don’t know her personally, but she had a sense of urgency and a willingness to help. I think that speaks volumes.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said with Budd’s outspokenness and Longo’s long-standing knowledge of the issue, they’ll be successful in their efforts.

“These women put their energy, their anger, their frustration, their sorrow into something that is helpful to the community,” she said. “I think they’re going to do amazing work.”

Longo has been involved in advocacy across the Island for the last five years, after her son suffered an overdose 10 years ago. Since then, her son has recovered, and currently lives in Del Ray, Florida as a director of marketing for a rehabilitation center called Insight to Recovery.

She said she found sending her son out of state helped him recover, because once he was done with his treatment, he wasn’t going back to seeing the same people he knew when he was using.

But she too has been involved in outreach and drug abuse prevention, aside from being to co-administrator of Budd’s Facebook page.

“I get a call just about every day from a parent saying they have a kid that’s addicted and they don’t know what to do,” she said. “We’re losing kids left and right. We’re losing a generation, is what we’re losing.”

Longo is a part of a 501(c)3 not-for-profit program, Steered Straight, which spreads prevention in schools. Recovered addict Michael DeLeon leads the program.

“You can hear a pin drop in the auditorium, that’s how dynamic of a speaker he is,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many kids come up to us at the end of the program and say, ‘I have a problem.’”

Longo was the chapter coordinator for New York State for a website called The Addict’s Mom, and is currently the head of Before the Petals Fall, Magnolia Addiction Support’s New York chapter. She is a 12-step yoga teacher to recovering addicts, and does post-traumatic stress disorder programs to help those dealing with grief.

After leaving nursing to go into medical marketing for hospitals, Longo said she thought she’d know where to turn when she found out her son was an addict, but said she really didn’t know what to do.

“There was such a bad stigma about addiction that you didn’t want to talk about it — you kind of suffered in silence,” she said. “If I was a nurse and had these contacts and didn’t know what to do, the average mother may have no idea. I’m trying to open the community up to what we have here on the North Shore.”

Tracey Budd holds a picture of her son, Kevin Norris, at a Walk for Hope event. Photo from Tracey Budd
Tracey Budd holds a picture of her son, Kevin Norris, at a Walk for Hope event. Photo from Tracey Budd

Longo has helped mothers like Sheila “Terry” Littler, of Rocky Point, whose son is a second-time recovering heroin addict. Currently, he is three months sober.

Knowing about treatment and where to get help, because it was something that started for her 13 years ago, Littler reached out to Longo for mental support.

“It was nice to have somebody else that’s gone through it to talk to, to know you’re not alone,” Littler said. “But at the same time, it’s sad that I’m not alone.”

When her son relapsed after being four and a half years sober, she reached out to Budd.

“It takes a lot of guts to come out in the open and do this and help people,” she said. “There are a lot of hurting people out there.”

She recently reached out to Longo about a friend of her son, who is a drug user, and the two were calling each other back and forth to find ways to overcome addiction.

“She cared to take the time to help me,” she said. “She spent a whole day doing that with me — that’s dedication right there.”

With the contacts Longo’s made with support centers and prevention agencies and Budd’s relationship with the county after creating the PSA, the two are teaming up to use their resources to form a coalition based on the Facebook page. It was also have the same name.

It’s in its early stages, but the hope is to help spread awareness about prevention through schools. As part of a coalition, Budd said, you can also apply for grants, which she hopes will help fund the spread of their advocacy.

“I felt Tracey was on the same path that I was on,” Longo said. “She is as tenacious as I am in what we’re trying to do.”

Longo said that she and Budd are trying to be vigilantes and have started Narcan training classes, like ones they’ve previously hosted in Miller Place and East Setauket, to continue to help fight the Island’s drug addiction problem. Narcan is a medication that stops opioid overdoses.

“I think together we’re a good team,” Budd said. “To me, you have a choice. You can either dig your head in the sand and be embarrassed that your child is an addict, or you can be proactive and say, ‘Enough of this, let’s help each other.’ When you speak to another parent that’s going through it, there’s a bond that you automatically create. In a way, I feel like my son is right there with me, helping these families. It’s very important to me, and I’m never going to stop doing it.”

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