By Stephen K. Peeples
A standing-room-only audience of about 150 Santa Clarita Valley residents and community leaders packed the ACTION Family Zone in Canyon Country to hear about drug abuse in the SCV from the teens' perspective at the "Teens Tell it Like it Is" symposium Thursday night.
"In all the symposiums we’ve done so far, it’s adults," said Cary Quashen, head of ACTION Family Counseling, which hosted the event at the Zone, a few minutes before it started. "Let’s hear it from the people that are right in the middle of it. These speakers tonight, they’ve got 70 days, a few months here and there — let’s hear it for people that are raw, people who are actually living it and people who know what’s really going on. They know where the dope is, they know what the dope is out here, they know what it does, they know how to get it — let’s hear it from them."
The symposium started at 6 p.m. with a resource fair, where vendors who work with local teens had booths set up to provide information and contacts for counseling and other services, including the Child & Family Center, Single Mothers Outreach, Al-Anon/Alateen, Celebrate Recovery, and the SCV Sheriff's Station's Juvenile Intervention Team, or J-Team, among others.
Incoming City Manager Ken Striplin represented the City of Santa Clarita, which works closely with local schools and law enforcement on a variety of anti-drug efforts, and hosts the annual "HeroinKills" symposium.
J-Team Det. Bill Velek's table displayed a wide variety of drugs and drug paraphernailia, and containers used by addicts to stash their drugs. "My favorites are the tennis ball and the lint-roller," Velek said. "They'll put dope in anything that has a void in it."
J-Team Det. Bob Wachsmuth updated us on the cold statistics: In 2012, 10 people have died from overdoses of heroin or opiate-related prescription drugs, and another four addicts have committed suicide. The OD number could rise; Wachsmuth is waiting for toxicology results in five more deaths authorities suspect are drug-related.
In 2011, there were five heroin deaths for the entire year, according to Wachsmuth.
At 7 p.m., experts briefly shared the latest information from their standpoint. They included Kathy Hunter, director of student services with the Wm. S. Hart school district; the J-Team's Bill Velek; and Alissa Myatt, licensed clinical social worker and lead social worker at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital.
The J-Team's Bob Wachsmuth and Bill Velek set up their display of drugs and paraphernalia.
Hunter said there are about 23,000 students in Hart district schools, and that about 400 students have been caught this year in possession of or under the influence of alcohol or drugs in school. She said 12 students were expelled, six were disciplinary transfers, and one high-schooler was expelled for dealing drugs on campus. She added that while drugs, especially marijuana and hashish, are still a big problem, she's also seeing more binge drinking now among students. She also briefly outlined the PIED, CADRE and DEFYiT anti-drug programs in place throughout the district.
Velek recounted the OD statistics: So far in 2012, 10 people have died from overdoses of heroin or opiate-related prescription drugs, and another four addicts have committed suicide. The OD number could rise; Velek and Wachsmuth are waiting for toxicology results in five more deaths they suspect are drug-related.
Myatt said drugs kill, yes, but not always. She described OD patients who become comatose. "The kid may not wake up, and if they do, they may be brain-damaged," she said. She described an 18-year-old who had the mental capacity of a 2-year-old after he OD'd. She told of another case where "friends" of an OD victim dumped her at Henry Mayo's emergency door and took off. She woke up two days later "scared s**tless. Am I trying to scare you? Yes," Myatt said.
After about 20 minutes of experts, the mostly-teen panel took over to share their experiences. Naomi Cheriegate, a 20-year-old recovering addict and CSUN student from Santa Clarita, served as moderator/emcee.
"I actually got sober through ACTION, and then I started volunteering for them and then once I had a year of sobriety a few months back I started working for them, so I work here at the Action Family Zone now," Cheriegate said. The purpose of "Teens Tell it Like it Is" is to "get the word out to parents who don't realize what's happening in their own back yard. We’re having these teens — most of them don't even have a year of sobriety yet — telling the parents, ‘Look, this is what I was doing six months ago, and this is where I hid it.' So we’re being very, very blunt today."
The panelists were Jolene Pringle, 18; Chris Hernandez, 18; Jade Tellers, 16; and Jade's mother, Deana, 43. All are residents of Santa Clarita, and all are recovering from addiction to a variety of illegal and prescription drugs, as well as alcohol.
Jade Tellers said she started using drugs at age 11. She said her mom was a drug addict and worked all day, so didn't really notice what was happening when her daughter was home alone. Jade started out drinking, then smoking marijuana, then raiding her mom's medicine cabinet and searching her room for prescription pills like Valium, Oxycontin and Xanax. She'd stash her drugs in places like the treehouse in the backyard, and conspire with her friends to cover for each other when they were out partying instead of visiting a friend.
Naomi Cheriegate (left) moderates the panel including Chris Hernandez, Jolene Pringle, Jade Tellers and Jade's mother Deana Tellers.
Tellers described how she kept up her grades and the appearance of being good for a few years, but eventually it all caught up with her.
"I had this belief that I could concentrate better on marijuana, and I'm so organized and I'm so creative, it's not even funny," she said. "I'd have these creative writing asignments and people would say, 'You're such a great writer,' and I'd say, 'Yep, was on pot the whole time.' I smoked every day. It got to the point where I couldn't eat, do homework, clean my room unless I smoked. It just got to the point where I felt I was addicted. I started not caring anymore, my grades started going down, and I just wanted to party with the drugalos."
Eventually, her mother caught her smoking, and instead of trying to put a stop to it, her mother basically accepted it, and they began partying together. They'd cover for other teens who wanted to come over and party. She got into fights at school, and on her 16th birthday, got a ticket for smoking in public, by Rosedale Elementary. She did not say how many days she had been sober.
Jade's mother Deana said she began using drugs at age 21; an old high school friend showed up with some cocaine. Later, thinking it was cocaine, she snorted crystal methamphetamine, and used it until she found out she was pregnent, with Jade. Deana stopped using during her pregnancy, but started up again afterward.
By Halloween of last year, both mother and daughter were out of control. A relative tipped off county Family Services authorities, who visited the house, saw what was going on, and tested Deana. When she tested positive, Jade went to live with her grandmother, and Deana checked into an ACTION rehab center. Shortly after her release, the relative who'd tipped off the authorities killed herself due to drugs and alcohol, Deana said, and she started drinking. She'd pass out at her desk at work, until her boss finally said, "Enough."
Deana went into ACTION rehab again as an outpatient, and on Jan. 5 of this year, came out sober. Her daughter was still drinking and taking drugs, though. "I called her to wish her a happy 16th birthday on Jan. 9," she said, "but she was so drunk I couldn't even talk to her."
Deana slowly regained her parental authority and started "dragging" her daughter to meetings, and finally, Deana said, "She spoke up said that she was an addict, and it was quite amazing. I took care of myself, and she followed suit. I'm very proud of her."
The capacity crowd included many recovering addicts.
Deana has been sober since she left rehab in January, and said she has a "wonderful relationship" with her daughter, now that both of them are are clean.
"If you have kids, talk to them and let them know that they can come to you without judgement, because judgement can put them back out, and if they don't feel they can talk to you, they're going to find somebody to talk to, and most likely it's going to be that dealer," Deana said.
Hernandez spoke next, describing what it was like growing up in a house full of addicts and alcoholics. His drug use started with prescription pills when he was in 7th grade.
"They were always around," he said. After a few years, he went from pills to alcohol, then back to pills, and then, while attending Valencia High School, where he said drugs were "everywhere," heroin — smoking and shooting it.
"I was in rehab every several months," he said. "I was throwing my life away. My parents were oblivious — they had their own problems."
Finally, after watching his friends do horrible things, he said, he checked into ACTION and this time has made his recovery last. "I'm 52 days clean," he said.
Pringle spoke last, describing her home life as "normal," with two brothers and a sister and parents married for 23 years. Pringle's drug use began as she struggled to keep up with her high-achieving sister, and her mother's judgemental comparisons. "'Why can't you be like your sister?'" she say," Pringle said.
Incoming City Manager Ken Striplin; Cary Quashen; ACTION supporters Carl Goldman and his wife Jeri Seratti-Goldman, owners of KHTS-AM 1220; Alissa Myatt of Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital; and ACTION Family Zone's Naomi Cheriegate chat a moment before the symposium began.
Pringle was doing well in junior high school when she had a blowout with her mother, and went to live with an uncle, who turned out to be a drug addict. She was 13 the first time she shot up crystal meth. At the end of her ninth grade year, her uncle killed himself over drugs. His death devastated her, she said, but after starting 10th grade at Canyon High, she kept using drugs, and kept hiding it well by making straight A grades and hanging around with a crowd that wasn't into drugs.
At Canyon, she started hanging around with the party crowd, and her drug and alcohol abuse got worse. She snuck vodka into school in plastic water bottles and got drunk on campus, and sucked on pot lollipops in class. She also wore colored contact lenses so her parents couldn't tell how smashed she was. She described elaborate ways she would hide her drugs, including cutting holes in her mattress.
Eventually, she got arrested after taking a car for a joyride while drunk, faked it through rehab, met and hooked up with a boyfriend who was a dealer, partied all the time, and finally quit school to hang out and party with him all day. After they broke up, she started using crystal meth. She started stealing and at age 16 was arrested for felony burglary. She was put on probation and house arrest, which was a joke; her friends would come to her house during the way when her parents were gone and party with her on the porch.
Finally, she went to a party that got raided by cops including the one who had arrested her omn the burglary charge. He violated her probation, but the judge gave her another chance. She stayed clean for several months, but kept hanging around with the same friends and relapsed into meth abuse.
"After that, it was a big shock," she said. "I would stay home alone, for days, just wondering what I should do, and I finally decided to go to a meeting, because I now had friends who were going and willing to help me, and I got clean. I got a sponsor who I love more than anything — she taught me how to trust people again, she taught me about being a human being, she taught me I can walk through anything. This is the longest I've been clean — 96 days.
Deana Tellers, her daughter Jade, and ACTION's Naomi Cheriegate talk a moment before the panelists made their remarks.
"All of this is worth it," Pringle said. "Today in my life I just have to graduate high school, and I was so far behind I never thought that would happen. Drug addicts don't graduate high school, but I did it. I'm going to go to college in the spring, and I want to study psychology. I have an amazing relationship with my friends, and with my family. My mom is one of my best friends today. I talk to her and I live her so much. My life is just amazing today."
After a brief Q&A session, Quashen took the podium for some closing remarks.
He asked everyone in the room who'd been sober more than a month to stand up. About 15 in the audience rose. He asked how many had been sober for less than a month; another 25 or so stood up. Both groups got rounds of applause to encourage them on. "Good," Quashen said, "because we're going to be holding more of these (symposiums), and I want you guys to come back and tell us how much longer you've stayed clean.
"We, you, everyone in this room need to make a big difference," Quashen said. "We can change things. We can save lives. That we can do. What we’re doing in Santa Clarita…is trying to make a difference. We do more in this community to being awareness to the drug deals, from the school district to the police department to the hospital to ACTION to every other program, so here in Santa Clarita, we’re making a difference. We’re going to save lives."
Quashen closed the evening by saying, "I know this may sound brutal, but f*** drugs and alcohol!"
Conspicuously, KTLA was the only television station covering the symposium. We caught up with reporter and SCV resident Rick Chambers after the event, as he was preparing his story for the 10 p.m. newscast.
Quashen mades his final remarks as Hernandez, Pringle, Tellers and Tellers look on.
"I think this is an important story for all the stations to be covering." Chambers said. "I’ve lived in the Santa Clarita Valley for 20 years, I’ve got three kids that have gone through the school system here, they’re all grown now and in their 20s, and I was as shocked as everybody else at how prevalent the problem is. And when they talk about it being an epidemic in this valley, this is probably the last place people most people think of heroin addiction, in Santa Clarita, but it’s here, and it’s not going away, and until people do something about it, it’s going to stick around. So being a part of the solution and helping with KTLA to be a part of the solution, I don’t think there’s any question as to why we’re up here."
We also asked Striplin about spearheading the city's anti-drug effort as new city manager.
“Effectively addressing drug use and abuse in our Valley is a top priority for the city," he said. "This year, we completely refocused our priorities and made a large financial commitment in launching DFYiT (Drug Free Youth in Town) in Santa Clarita’s junior and senior high schools. This effort is part of our larger commitment, with our community partners, to stem the tide of drug use in Santa Clarita.
"We will be continuing with the "HeroinKills" program, now entering its third year," Striplin said. "The Santa Clarita City Council is committed to doing whatever we can to impact this devastating problem. I applaud ACTION and KHTS for their dedication to address drug use and abuse with programs like the 'Teens Tell It...' symposium. It will take our entire community, working together, to turn this around.”
For further information about "Teens Tell it Like it Is," click here  or call ACTION's Bob Sharits at 661-309-0094.
Find the ACTION Family Zone at 20655 Soledad Canyon Road, #24, accross from the Home Depot in Canyon Country 91351.
For more information about ACTION Family Counseling, call 661-467-2714 or visit www.actionfamilycounseling.com .