By Marlys Mason
The Owensboro Times
DECEMBER 1, 2021 | 12:07 AM
UPDATED NOVEMBER 30, 2021 | 10:23 PM

Michael speaking with two projector screens behind him

Photo by Marlys Mason

“If you listen to what I say, it might save your life one day.” That’s what Michael DeLeon, a recovered drug addict and former gang member, told the audience Tuesday at College View Middle School.

Daviess County Public Schools hosted DeLeon, the founder of the nonprofit Steered Straight, at its middle and high schools on Monday and Tuesday.

Parents and community leaders were invited to a special presentation Tuesday night in hopes of providing information on the dangers of addiction and educating people on how to stop what’s happening in the community.

DeLeon isn’t just providing information; he is showing that his life is an example of what can happen when a child turns inward and uses drugs and alcohol to alleviate the pain.

DeLeon told the audience of his upbringing from poor roots and wearing hand-me-downs for his first-day-of-school outfit.

“But, I didn’t know we were poor because we were happy and lived in a houseful of love,” he said.

That all changed in one day as a 5th-grade DeLeon stepped off the bus to see his father, who traveled for work, packing his car with more than just a suitcase. It was then DeLeon learned of his parents’ impending divorce.

“Talking about it hurt,” he told the students.

Asking the students to raise their hands if they had experienced similar events, many did.

“It’s ok not to be ok,” he said. “But it’s not ok to stay that way.”

Pointing to teachers and administrators, DeLeon asked several if they had ever asked for help, showing students that the adults that surround them daily can help keep them strong.

“These people can help you,” he said.

DeLeon shared many visuals of data about the dangers of addiction, including his own path to destruction that began at age 11 with nicotine, “pills at 15, cocaine at 16,  heroin at 18, meth at 19” until he was 28 years old and found himself in prison in New Jersey, where he resided for 12 years.

“That’s as long as some of you have been alive,” he told the silent student section.

Showing students how he turned his life around — and repeatedly telling them he wasn’t asking them to not do drugs, but begging them not to — he said spending 320 days on the road to share his message in just this past year is part of the sacrifice he is willing to make to share his story and potentially save lives.

“All of these deaths are preventable,” he said while telling about funerals he has attended for teens who overdosed. “No one can stop you from addiction except you.”

Asking students to raise their hands with various encounters they have with people or with drugs — including e-cigs, vape pens and Juuls — DeLeon allowed students to see they were not alone and that the epidemic he was telling them about is all preventable.

“I’m sorry,” he said after each reveal of the students’ responses.

With 90% of addiction beginning between the ages of 7 and 17, DeLeon is on a mission to change perceptions and end addiction.

Daviess County High School Assistant Principal Lance Blue was instrumental in getting DeLeon to speak after hearing him at the Mental Health Summit in July. Blue approached DeLeon about speaking engagements and brought the information to the administration team, which included Youth Service Coordinator Megan Nicodemus.

“In my role as assistant principal, I have seen a drastic increase in the usage of e-cigs/Juuls, to the point that I would classify it as an epidemic,” Blue said. “The e-cigs/Juuls usage knows no boundaries… It affects all walks of life and age groups.”

Nicodemus said that one of the core components of the Family Resource and Youth Service Centers of Kentucky is to address Substance Abuse education and counseling, but that finding age-appropriate, engaging programming is very difficult.

“Middle and high school students can be very resistant to substance abuse education, so when Mr. Blue saw Mr. DeLeon speak and told how he was drawn to Mr. DeLeon’s personal story of overcoming drug abuse, jail time and the death of his mother, I was ready to try something new,” she said.

Nicodemus said that hearing it from someone who has shared their experiences can often “flip the switch” that school faculty and other adults cannot do.

“I believe our students heard his message because they share those experiences and want a better outcome,” she said.

Daviess County Public Schools’ Lead Law Enforcement Officer Brad Youngman, who heard DeLeon at the same summit as Mr. Blue, said that he is glad DCPS brought DeLeon to speak to students.

“Any effort made toward keeping our children safe from drugs is worthwhile because drugs are a major problem in our community,” Youngman said. “Safety is our priority and this presentation highlights the importance of early education about drugs so that we can hopefully deter addiction and ultimately save lives.”

By sharing the perpetrated myths, along with the truths, DeLeon educated the students on the dangers of starting any of these targeted activities — alcohol, nicotine and marijuana.

Talking one-on-one with children is one of the best ways to find out the struggles and because of this, DeLeon and his wife have created a book, Table Talks and Dashboard Conversations, that provides 365 3-minute conversations that will deepen parent/guardian-child connections.

“One-third of the book talks about drugs and assesses protective factors and risk factors,” he said.

The book also provides conversation starters around goal setting, identity and soft skills that are necessary. There are also 104 family field trips included.

As he ended his presentation, DeLeon told them to ask for help.

“You don’t think it could happen to you,” he said. “But you are being targeted.”