WILDWOOD – A morning assembly of Wildwood Middle School students, grades 6, 7 and 8, came together Dec. 10 to hear the message of Michael DeLeon and Colin O’Brien of Steered Straight, Inc. The message was both disturbing and uplifting. It spoke of dark roads and ruined lives but also of choices and opportunities for success.

The organization, started by DeLeon, is a non-profit organization that offers motivational school assemblies and community programs. The programs focus on the value of making good decisions and straight talk on the dangerous consequences of poor choices with respect to drugs, gangs, bullying and violence.

DeLeon and his colleague O’Brien were candid and graphic as they discussed their own lives. They put their years of addiction front and center showing the impact that drugs, gang activity, and a lack of education had not only on them, but on their families and loved ones as well. Their stories had the impact they wanted. The bored looks or inattention that often accompanies teenagers in such circumstances gave way to interest.

When this group, largely 11 to 13-year-olds, was asked how many of them know someone in prison, over half raised their hands.

When asked how many knew someone who had died from a drug overdose, a similar number indicated yes. The message was not foreign to the lives of the young people.

Steered Straight does not depend on scare tactics often used in such programs. While it is open about the way bad decisions can lead to lives of poverty, addiction, family pain and alienation, and even prison, the real message is that this is not in anyone’s destiny.

Opportunities for success exist; choices are there for the making. The stress is on education, the right friendships, and talking about the things that bother you.

That emphasis on speaking up is a major aspect of the program. DeLeon says that young people too often don’t open their mouths and talk about what they don’t understand or what troubles them. He urges them to find a teacher or family member they can relate to and talk about their issues.

Knowing that that will not always be the case, DeLeon has another option for young people confronted with bad choices. Second Floor is Steered Straight’s confidential and anonymous helpline available 24 hours a day. Young adults facing problems at school, at home, or with friends can call 888-222-2228 and speak to someone who wants to help them.

As DeLeon discusses his all-too-tragic life, the fact that he almost got his wife and child killed, the fact that his status as an ex-con has left him with very few options in the work world, and the harm he did to family and friends, he blames himself.

No one else made those bad choices. He has dedicated his life to helping teens avoid the life experiences he has had. “There is no do over, no reset button,” he said.

Why this audience? DeLeon points out that “90 percent of substance abusers started in their teens.” A look around the auditorium at the young faces and the potential for tragedy was all too clear. DeLeon, who has probably delivered this program hundreds of times, still became emotional as he admitted, “I brought death to my own family and it still did not stop my drug use.”

One imagines that the chance to resonate with the right teen and the right moment in one of these assemblies, to prevent that one lost life, is motivation enough for the effort. He doesn’t want any of those young people to “go through what I went through.”

DeLeon was “saved” by a 12-year prison sentence. The stress of the program, however, is not all on the dark consequences of bad choices. DeLeon and O’Brien were there to stress the positive life impacts of good choices. They hold out examples of opportunity and success with the clear understanding that choosing the right fork in the road is up to each individual student in the room.

Help is what Steered Straight is about, but choice is personal. DeLeon repeatedly acknowledged the individual must then bear the burden of that choice.

As students filtered out of the auditorium for lunch, DeLeon and O’Brien prepared for the afternoon session aimed at ninth, 10th and 12th graders. After that, they were off to another location and another group of teens.

Original article: http://www.capemaycountyherald.com/community/schools/article_964ca19b-3f96-5432-8a17-875cf210842f.html
Vince Conti,