“We practice how to resist drugs and always say no to bad things,” said North Bergen fifth grader Felipe Macias on Wednesday. “And to reach our goals. Never give up.”
“We learned about peer pressure, alcohol and drugs,” said fellow fifth grader Victoria De Armas. “And they taught us nine ways to say no.”
On Wednesday, June 4, North Bergen celebrated DARE Day. DARE – Drug Abuse Resistance Education – is an international substance abuse education program designed to teach kids the dangers of drugs.
This was North Bergen’s 20th year participating in DARE programs within the schools. Fourteen years ago the town initiated DARE Day as a graduation present to the fifth-grade kids who completed the program.
It included fun, food, and even a teacher dunk tank.
“We decided let’s have a really nice day for all the kids who did all the work all year long,” said Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who attended the event to congratulate the graduates. “Something to say thank you for all your hard work.”
This year the festivities began with a performance by the Viibe dancers, a troupe of kids from across New Jersey who perform syncopated routines and stunts under the direction of Lori Michaels.
“DARE represents a chance for the students to get to know our police department and our officers.” –Nicholas Sacco
The audience sang along enthusiastically with her signature song, “Reach Out,” and enjoyed the acrobatic dancers before charging across the field by the Recreation Center to attack the many games and attractions set up for their entertainment.
Joe Sitty is a retired police officer and current president of the DARE Officers Association of NJ, representing over 1,000 DARE Officers. He runs the DARE program for North Bergen.
“I first got involved 18 years ago,” when he was still on the force, said Sitty. “I went to the two-week training. Back then there were two officers doing the program. I would cover four schools, the other officer covered three schools.”
Two years ago Sitty retired, and the township offered him the opportunity to run the program. “Now it’s me solo,” he said. “Seven schools. This year I have 635 kids and 24 classes and I teach Tuesday through Friday.”
Sitty’s state-approved curriculum, called “Too Good for Drugs,” consists of 10 lessons spread over about 22 classes of 40 minutes each. Topics include goal setting, decision making, handling emotions, and peer pressure, in addition to specific classes on alcohol and drugs.
“DARE represents a chance for the students to get to know our police department and our officers,” said Mayor Sacco. “To find out that our officers are friends, that our police are friends, that if they have a problem they can go to them. They get to meet and have a lot of discussions. It really ties our students to the police department. They’re not just guys enforcing the laws. They’re guys and women who are here to help them.”
Partial financing comes from the Municipal Alliance of North Bergen. “It’s funded through the Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse,” said Municipal Alliance Coordinator Nick Biamonte. “And we use part of our money to help fund this day.”
The Municipal Alliance paid for certificates for all graduates of the program. They also paid for each kid to receive a special t-shirt designed by student artist Celeste Izquierdo, a senior at North Bergen High School. Izquierdo won a contest to design this year’s image.
“I said, ‘Let me think something for the kids,’ ” said Izquierdo. “Something very colorful, and simple as well. So I put all the mascots around the police badge for the 20th anniversary.”
Asked how it felt to watch hundreds of kids run around having a ball in her design, she said, “I love it. They’re wearing my artwork and enjoying it.”
‘Our graduation time is here’
“It’s amazing,” said Amy Benitez, exiting soaking wet from her fourth trip down the water slide, talking excitedly about the event. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s fun, the whole day,” agreed Felipe Macias. “We’re like relaxing from all the work we’ve done for DARE.”
Samantha Sosa and Anna Coral are sixth graders who managed to wrangle a return visit to DARE Day. “Our class is half fifth and half sixth, so we got to go with them,” said Coral.
“The program last year was actually different from this year,” said Sosa.
“We got different books, different information,” added Coral. “And they made the shirts cooler this year.”
Derrick Feaster and Justin Cantor were taking a break in an air-conditioned trailer, eating sno-cones and spilling out rhymes. “We’re rapping, watching TV,” said Cantor.
“Put it in the newspaper--two boys rapping,” said Feaster excitedly. “Say no without the fear, our graduation time is here. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat, put it on that.”
Among the other city officials who showed up to offer their congratulations to the graduating class were Commissioner Hugo Cabrera, Police Chief Robert Dowd, and Superintendent of Schools Dr. George Solter.
None of whom rapped.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.