LAKEHURST – Two 5th grade classes at Lakehurst Elementary School graduated from the D.A.R.E. – Drug Abuse Resistance Education program on a sunny afternoon.
Before they received their certificates of completion, they were treated to an assembly led by Nick Santonastasso, an inspiring Central Regional alum who became a wrestler and fitness model – even though he was born with a genetic condition that left him with no legs, an undeveloped right arm and a left arm with one finger.
He spun a strong message of positivity for the graduating 5th graders, encouraging them to stay positive, overcome challenges, give school and their teachers 100 percent, and most importantly, that failure is awesome. Nick said that his biggest motivation is people telling him that he can’t do something, and hoped to pass on the same message to the attentive young minds.
The students seemed more interested in Nick than they did in graduating, and asked him a plethora of questions about what inspired him to wrestle, who he looks up to the most and the hardest thing in life he’s had to accomplish.
Patrol Officer Roberta Brooks of the Lakehurst Police Department served as this year’s D.A.R.E. officer and teacher during the 10-week program.
“It has been a great opportunity for me to be able to teach these students,” said Brooks. “I had the opportunity to get to know these students and build a strong rapport with them over the last 10 weeks. They learned from me, but I learned a lot from them also.”
The D.A.R.E. program, which has been a driving force in school systems across the county for over 30 years, is much more than a drug prevention program, said Brooks. She said the program teaches children tools and strategies to grow into responsible citizens who lead drug-free lives. Good decision making, goal setting, taking positive risks, healthy self-esteem, communicating confidently, giving and asking for help, managing emotions and making friends are all key parts of the program. Students are given scenarios that might come up in middle or high school, and then work with their classmates to come up with solutions on how to respect each other, face peer pressure and avoid being taken advantage of or bullied.
Students were asked to write an essay summarizing what they learned during the D.A.R.E. program, and one winner from each class was chosen: Taylor Hoenge from Mrs. Triolo’s class and Alexandra Spear from Mrs. Hoerster’s class. The two young women read their essays at the podium after receiving their graduation certificates.
Officer Brooks thanked Mrs. Triolo and Mrs. Hoerster for their help during the program and for sharing their own experiences with students. As parting advice, she brought up the statewide opioid epidemic, encouraging parents to face the issue head on.
“Please talk with your children, not at them. Make time not only to hear them, but to also listen to what they are saying,” said Brooks.