Neighbors must have thought Beyonce was in town, the way the kids were cheering on the field as Lori Michaels belted out a pair of songs. The occasion was the first annual LEAD Day, and the lucky recipients of the free mini-concert were about 600 graduating fifth graders from North Bergen’s elementary schools.
“We’re just here to have fun,” said Alin Polanco, 10. “The police officer that taught us all about drugs wanted to congratulate us for graduating.”
That officer is Joe Sitty, who runs the Law Enforcement Against Drugs (LEAD) program for North Bergen. Over the course of the year, he teaches fifth graders the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse.
“We learned about drugs and their effects, and pledged that we’re never going to do drugs,” said Camila Espinosa, 11.
“And how drugs affects our goals,” added Hayde Sacapuirin, 10. “And the diseases they can give us.”
The graduation celebration began on Stan Newman Field, across from the recreation center, with the kids singing along to Michaels’ signature tune, “Reach Out.” Michaels and her accompanist, DJ D-Original, also offered a special preview of an upcoming song.
“We’re giving a sneak peek of our diversity campaign and we did a remake of ‘Boogie Shoes,’” said Michaels, who runs a nonprofit group supporting anti-drug and community welfare projects. “It promotes being who you are, being unique, being special.”
About 600 fifth graders were treated to a mini-concert, rides, lunch, and more.
“They have their lessons and they get to know the police officers as friends,” said Mayor Nicholas Sacco. “We used to [hold graduation] in each school individually and then we put this day together 15 years ago. They love it. It’s a great day.”
LEAD vs. DARE
North Bergen has conducted drug awareness programs for grade school kids for more than two decades.
However, before this year, the anti-drug program was DARE – Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
“DARE was using a curriculum called ‘Keeping it Real,’ which at the elementary school doesn’t meet New Jersey core curriculum standards, and it doesn’t meet New Jersey drug prevention standards,” said Sitty. “So the administrator’s association at the state level announced that they were not going to back the Keeping it Real curriculum, which created a problem for DARE New Jersey, and ultimately put them out of business.”
LEAD is a new, nonprofit organization based in New Jersey that adopted a curriculum called “Too Good for Drugs.” “It’s evidence-based and proven effective,” said Sitty.
“This is more skills-oriented,” explained John Belluardo, supervisor of the Student Assistance Resource Program and chairman of the North Bergen Against Alcohol and Drugs Municipal Alliance. “It’s a classroom setting, but now they break them into groups and they can discuss the issue. Out of that lesson they can discuss it amongst themselves and come back and brainstorm how they would solve the problem.”
The North Bergen Against Alcohol and Drugs Municipal Alliance receives money annually from the state and previously used a portion of that money to fund DARE. This year between $13,000 and $14,000 is going to LEAD instead. That money pays for diplomas for the participants and any expenses involved in the program, including t-shirts, which were covered with other kids’ signatures by the graduation celebration.
“I am so proud that this program is part of public safety,” said Allen Pascual, the new Public Safety Commissioner in North Bergen. “We teach some great lessons to children.”
Best birthday ever
“The reason we’re having a day like this is because you work hard all year,” Mayor Nicholas Sacco told the crowd. “And you deserve a day when you can enjoy yourselves.” It’s a memorable day indeed, complete with inflatable sports games, a dunk tank, lunch, a concert, and much more.
Students from the eighth grade class and the members of the high school Key Club and student council volunteered to help out at the event, manning the attractions and handing out water and snacks.
“We went through the program when we were in fifth grade,” said Shaima Siyam, a senior at the high school. Along with fellow students Manar Mustafa and Hamda Haj, she was in charge of helping kids onto the water slide and then out of the pool at the bottom.
Describing some of the other events of the day, she said, “They give out raffles and they pick a number and you can win a prize. The kids get to go on all the rides and they’ve got food, they’ve got ice cream.”
“I did this in fifth grade,” said Kimberly Sanchez, 14, an eighth grader volunteering to help out for the day, working at the mechanical bull ride. “It was really fun. There’s not really a plan for the day. You just do whatever you want.”
A resident of North Bergen since she was five, Sanchez said of the town, “It’s pretty awesome, the atmosphere here. The people are always so nice. You’ll never be alone here. You’ll always find someone.”
Standing in line eagerly awaiting their turn on the water slide were friends Kiara Rodriguez and Jeremy Escobar, both 11.
“Today’s his birthday,” said Rodriguez. “He gets the best birthday ever.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.