By Dan Walton
Special to the Chronicle
To help the local youth identify and avoid the decisions that can lead to severe drug addiction, members of the Okanagan Correctional Centre were at Tuc-el-Nuit Elementary School last week to have a frank discussion with the Grade 5, 6 and 7 students.
The conversation was led by assistant deputy warden Keith Pearce and security officer Mitch Fritz, who spoke about their volunteer experiences doing outreach in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside. Joining them on their missions are players from the Penticton Vees.
During their interactions with victims of severe drug addiction, Pearce has noticed that users are much more willing to open up to hockey players than they are to police officers.
“Addicts were almost star struck by the BCHL players,” Pearce said. “They would tell stories about playing hockey when they were young and build that bond. They’re way more open to tell players things they wouldn’t tell law enforcement.”
Involving hockey players in the outreach works both ways – when it comes time to share those experiences with the youth, Pearce said the students also have an easier time relating to the Vees.
“Kids are going to listen to junior hockey players a lot more than they’re going to listen to police officers. So whether it’s addicts opening up to tell stories to hockey players, or how the hockey players talk to the kids about addiction – it works better both ways.”
Some of the Vees were planning on joining Pearce and Fritz for the presentation at Tuc-el-Nuit last Thursday, but hectic winter weather made the highway unsafe for travel.
However, there was still a hockey role model in attendance – before Fritz became a security officer, he played in the NHL and for the Osoyoos Coyotes.
Their message didn’t take a ‘scared straight’ approach in telling kids to stay away from drugs. They weren’t antagonizing those who have ended up living on the streets, but rather painted them as normal people who succumbed to the creeping factors that lead to severe drug addiction.
But those who deal drugs aren’t spoken of in a sympathetic manner – those people are the targets of police enforcement. The actions of drug dealers are what facilitates severe addiction while putting users at a great risk of overdosing on the deadly opioid fentanyl.
One student asked if fentanyl has ever been identified in Oliver. Pearce said yes it has.
“Do people mix fentanyl with liquid marijuana?” asked one student.
“Will they ever run out of plants?” asked another.
The answer to both of those questions was no.
Students also learned about the dangers of legal drugs, such as alcohol and nicotine, which are responsible for the vast majority of drug deaths in Canada. But while illicit drugs cause far fewer deaths, the consequences are much more sudden and gruesome.
When it comes to teaching the kids about marijuana – which is in its final months of prohibition – the authorities are navigating uncharted waters.
“It’s a difficult subject, like nailing Jello to a wall right now,” Pearce said. “Not even the province knows how that picture will look. So in terms of our messaging, we’re doing our best to be honest with the kids.”
Students were told that much like alcohol and cigarettes, adults will soon have the freedom to purchase marijuana for recreational use.
“And it comes with risks,” he said. “The same dangers of tobacco, if not more, apply to marijuana use.”
Although the abuse of any drug can cause significant problems in life, Pearce said once a user decides to smoke crack cocaine or methamphetamine – even just one time – the damage is irreversible.
Those who suffer from the worst forms of addiction will often reach the point of desperation where they cheat and steal from their loved ones.
“They all miss one thing the most – family and friends,” Pearce said.
“Don’t go down my path,” users are often heard saying. “Make healthy choices for yourself or you’re going to lose your family.”
The program was designed for Grade 6 students because they’re “still young but mature enough to have a sense of understanding,” Pearce said.
“We want to make sure our messaging gets to them at the appropriate age, so that when they do face these challenging situations in a few years they have a plan and they can prepare for it.”
Earlier in the school year, the hockey players and prison guards visited several other schools around the South Okanagan, including Osoyoos Elementary, Oliver Elementary, Sen Pok Chin School and Summerland Middle School.
Over the next month, they’ll be making presentations to students at Okanagan Falls Elementary School, Holy Cross School, Skaha Lake Middle School and Similkameen Elementary Secondary School.
Penticton Vees assistance coach Matt Fraser said when Pearce approached the organization at the beginning of the 2016-2017 hockey season, the players were happy to help.
“It’s a great experience for everyone involved,” said Fraser. “Everyone is impacted by drug abuse in one form or another, and it’s such a prominent issue right now, so we’re happy to help out in whatever way we can.”