Project Aware: Barnegat Kids Get a Dose of Reality

By ERIC ENGLUND | May 08, 2019

Barnegat — It’s a scenario that happens far too often, and usually with tragic consequences. Young people are having a get-together at someone’s house when illegal substances are passed around. One decides he’d like to have the experience of getting high but winds up having a toxic reaction, sending him to the hospital with his life hanging in the balance.

At the Russell Brackman Middle School in Barnegat Township, this scene was acted out recently through a program involving sixth-graders known as Project Aware. Principal Shannon Smith said the project  is a collaborative effort by Southern Ocean Medical Center, drama club students under the direction of Patty Clark Brescia and the staff, and the Barnegat Police Department and first aid squad.

“Project Aware provides substance abuse education through a real-life simulation,” said Smith. “Selected Brackman students act out a story involving peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, and death. This portion took place in our auditorium. Through role-play, a field trip to the ER at SOMC and follow-up discussion at the hospital, the students experience the consequences of making bad choices and discover their power to make good choices.”

District Superintendent Brian Latwis said, “I was very impressed with how very realistic this was. Many of the students were truly moved by this simulation. We can only hope that it will inspire them to make better decisions. They see the reality of what happens when you don’t make good choices.” 

He said the presentation closely follows the script of Project Aware in Stafford Township, which began the program in 2000 through a partnership with the municipal alliance. Directing the production is Caitlin Gioe, district theater teacher.

“We thought sixth-graders would be a good target audience because they haven’t reached the point where they think they’re too cool for school,” said Gioe. “We felt they were still young enough where we can effectively reach out to them.”

She said then-alliance director Gail Bott knew of a hospital nurse who had seen a similar production in a Gloucester County school her daughters attended.

“Gail thought this was something we should do, so we developed our own skit,” said Gioe. “We went from two pages in the beginning and now we’re up to 15.”

Gioe said the students were surveyed about the production, and were asked questions such as if they felt the production was realistic and if it would help them make the right decision in the future. According to the results, 287 out of 298 students said “yes” as to the program’s realism. In making the right decision, 295 out of 297 said “yes.” And if Project Aware should be performed every year, only one of 298 students surveyed said “no.”  

Last summer, Barnegat was one of numerous school districts that attended a Project Aware workshop. 

“We really hope many other schools follow our lead,” said Gioe. “It’s a great teaching tool.”

— Eric Englund








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