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Don’t Start: A Drug and Alcohol Free Lifestyle

Dom Spada speaks to kids at the fire house in Halesite. Photo from Dom Spada

By Victoria Espinoza

After responding to calls for drug overdose after drug overdose, one Halesite Fire Department firefighter said enough is enough.

Second Assistant Fire Chief Dom Spada said he got sick of going on overdose calls and wanted to do more —  so he created a drug prevention and education program called Be Smart, Don’t Start: A Drug and Alcohol Free Lifestyle.

Spada, who is also deputy mayor and police commissioner of Huntington Bay, said one drug overdose call in particular was the catalyst for the program.

“I went on a call on Thanksgiving morning, and there was a 19-year-old girl dead,” he said in a phone interview. “Something compelled me to go to the wake. So I did and I chatted with her mom, who told me this had been a long road for the family, since the girl had started using in sixth grade. That blew me away.”

Spada said it hit him especially hard because he has two young children. He created Be Smart, Don’t Start, where he speaks to sixth-, seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders about the dangers of using drugs, and how they can stay safe.

“I describe the calls I go on, and it can get pretty graphic,” he said. “We also talk about the reasons why kids turn to drugs; peer pressure, bullying, problems at home. I’ve heard it all.”

Spada said he utilizes role-playing scenarios with the kids.

“The presentation is very direct and speaks to specific experiences that certain families and agencies have had with addiction. What it makes very clear is that the issue crosses demographics and neighborhoods.”
— Jim Polansky

“I give them a script and examples on how kids can get out of situations like if someone is pressuring them to try drugs,” he said. Spada is also a lacrosse coach, and some of his coaching experience spills into the course as well.

“I tell the kids, look at athletes; they hate to talk to the media, and whenever they’re asked questions they pretend to take a phone call,” he said. “I tell the kids they can do the same thing as a way to take themselves out of a situation they don’t want to be in.”

The firefighter said he also talks with parents about creating lines to use with their children if they need to be picked up from a party or place where they no longer feel comfortable. “You got to have a plan, just like going into a fire,” he said.

Aside from Spada’s presentation, he said he also brings a member of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to speak with the kids, as well as a parent who has lost a child to a drug overdose, and Chris Jack, Huntington Bay police chief, to talk to the kids about the legal ramifications of drug use.

“This was kind of put together on a whim, but we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” Jack said in a phone interview.

Jack said Spada approached him to get involved. “This is important, you see the headlines everyday,” Jack said. “As a cop, you get desensitized to a lot of things, but when you see 12- and 13-year-olds hooked on heroin, you never get desensitized to that.”

The police chief said he can see the look of shock in kid’s eyes when he explains to them all the effects drunk driving and drug abuse can have on their life, including how it effects their record, getting a job, applying for college and more. Spada said the cost of installing a Breathalyzer in a car and court fees helps scare the kids straight.

Huntington school district Superintendent Jim Polansky has attended the program and said he sees it as a valuable resource for students and parents alike, and appreciates all the work Spada and the fire department does.

“Community partnerships are important, particularly when it comes to such critical issues as drug awareness and prevention,” he said in an email. “The presentation is very direct and speaks to specific experiences that certain families and agencies have had with addiction. What it makes very clear is that the issue crosses demographics and neighborhoods; it can appear anywhere and often in situations where it is least expected. This can be eye-opening for some, but a very important message to convey.”

Polasnky also said he appreciates the course being offered on a continuous basis. “The messages cannot be shared enough,” he said.

Currently the program is held at the Halesite Fire Department, but Spada said community groups and schools have reached out to see if he could bring the program to them. The next two programs dates are set for Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the Halesite Fire Department at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, Feb. 1, at Huntington Manor Fire Department.