By Lyn Krzeminski / The Clearwater Progress
KAMIAH — On Oct. 30, the Kamiah High School gymnasium bleachers filled up with middle and high school students happily ending their school day with an assembly. Talking, laughing, and feet pounding up the bleachers, they were orderly but somewhat loud. So, some guy was going to talk to them about drug abuse.
Michael DeLeon was there to talk about drug abuse — his own. From Steered Straight Inc., a nonprofit organization in Tennessee, DeLeon has delivered his drug education assembly entitled “Choices and Decisions” to more than 14 million students since 2007.
As the kids settled into his presentation and listened to his story unfold, they quickly became attentive. He told them of his impoverished childhood in Ireland, his family’s move to the U.S. at age 5, the horrendous physical abuse he endured, and the total silence he maintained about it until a chance meeting with a sympathetic older boy on a basketball court. The dam broke, and the 12-year-old Michael spilled everything to that kid. Still inexperienced and naive, Michael believed him and his friends when they said a cigarette would make him feel better. They believed it themselves. From there DeLeon descended into addiction, to cocaine at age 14, heroin at 17, and meth at 19.
Reminding his student audience that drugs also affect families, he related to them the story of a drug deal “gone bad” and how the gang leader sent two men to bring him in to be killed.
“I wasn’t home,” DeLeon said, “but my mother was. I got home at 7:30 in the morning and found my mother murdered. It was Mother’s Day.” There was stunned silence.
DeLeon spent 12 years in a New Jersey prison. For five years he was an inmate participating in the Scared Straight program, but when he found out that almost all the boys brought to the prison returned to drugs and street life afterward, he quit. After his release, he knew he had to do something else to “save the world,” and he began working with Steered Straight in 2005, speaking directly to kids not yet caught in addiction’s web.
A firm believer that nicotine and vaping are the threshold drugs for teenagers, DeLeon went no further into the often-heard dangers of hard drugs, but emphasized the dangers of vaping, inhaling heated aerosols into the lungs. He spoke of the chemicals used to manufacture e-cigarettes and the heating element within each device that reaches 200°F.
“The vapor not only goes to the lungs but also to every cell in the body. You should be furious at the companies who make these,” he told the kids. “They have lied to you, and they have targeted you.”
The kid-friendly flavorings and colorful packaging are cynically done to appeal to teenagers who want to be cool, he told them.
“Ninety-seven percent of adult drug addicts begin with nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana as teenagers,” DeLeon stated.
He advised waiting until 21 to use legal substances, saying:
“I can almost guarantee that if you wait, you won’t become addicted. The brain doesn’t fully mature until you’re in your 20s, so waiting until 30 to drink would be even better.”
And vaping? Never, he said. It has now become a growing cause of respiratory illness and some deaths for the very young.
In conclusion, he reminded the students about making the right choices and right decisions now to live a successful life as an adult. DeLeon received a strong and appreciative ovation from the students before dismissal.