NORWALK — Nine weeks of learning to make positive life decisions culminated in a Wednesday morning graduation ceremony at Norwalk City Hall, where 849 fifth-graders celebrated their completion of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program.
D.A.R.E. is a nationwide program that allows police officers to teach students how to resist peer pressure and live drug-free and violence-free lives. Through visits to Norwalk’s 12 elementary schools, Officer Chris Holms, coordinator of Norwalk’s D.A.R.E. program, and his fellow officers spoke with children about alcohol and drug abuse, tobacco use, and confidence-building.
“This is always an exciting day for me and for the police department,” said Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik.
D.A.R.E. officers include Holms, Officers Gabriel DeMott, Cornell Abruzzini, Freddie Kellogg, Lt. Terry Blake, Lt. Bill Lowe, Deputy Chief Ashley Gonzalez and Deputy Chief Susan Zecca. Mayor Harry Rilling addressed the graduates seated in the Concert Hall.
“Over the past weeks, you’ve learned to make the right choices,” Rilling said. “Sometimes those choices may not seem clear, but you have a lot of people you can reach out to — police officers, teachers, guidance counselors, parents, older brothers and sisters, grandparents — to guide you in the right direction. It’s very important to grow up healthy, happy, and strong and to make the right decisions.”
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, whose son was among the graduates, spoke to the fifth-graders about making choices.
“You are at a point in life when you get to a fork in the road, you have to figure out which way to go,” Duff said. “Because of the work you’ve done through D.A.R.E., you’ll have the tools to make the right decisions.”
Each year, D.A.R.E. students are tasked with writing essays about their dreams or goals. This year's essay winner was Lindsay Caruso, a fifth-grade student at Wolfpit Elementary School.
“The D.A.R.E. officers get together and choose an essay to be read at graduation,” Holms said.
Caruso took the stage and read her essay in which she outlined the negative effects of drugs, alcohol and bullying.
“Bullying is a way to potentially hurt someone,” she read.
Kulhawik said that the D.A.R.E. program is funded in part by Connecticut’s drug asset forfeiture law.
“A percentage of seized assets goes into our educational account,” he said. “We’re able to put it back for the kids, the law is designed to do that.”
The law allows prosecutors to file a civil action in court seeking an order to forfeit money or property seized from someone related to a drug crime. The law also requires using account funds for substance abuse treatment and education programs.
In distributing forefeited funds, 70 percent is distributed to local police departments, of which 15 percent must be used for drug education, according to the Connecticut Judicial Branch.
The Norwalk Exchange Club has also been a major supporter of the DARE program, Kulhawik said.
Earlier this year, Holms was presented with a check for $3,750 by the Norwalk Exchange Club. Those funds were used to purchase T-shirts for students graduating from the program.
Holms, an 18-year veteran of the Norwalk Police Department, has worked with the program for the last five years and teaches classes at a majority of the D.A.R.E. schools in the city.
“Officer (Carlton) Giles had been doing this for me than 20 years and he asked me to take over about six years ago,” Holms said. “I did the two-week training and I was blown away. I love it.”
Frank Costanzo, Norwalk’s chief of school operations, offered his congratulations to the graduates and reminisced about his personal D.A.R.E. experience.
“I remember signing that D.A.R.E. contract that said that I refused to use drugs that would be harmful to my body,” Costanzo said. “As you get older, you’ll see the difficult choices you have to make ... On behalf of the superintendent, I congratulate each of you.”
The decibel level in the concert hall jumped when magician Mr. Abracadabra aka Nick Moriello took the stage.
Moriello delighted the children with card tricks, disappearing napkins, and the grand finale: colorful beach balls passed by the graduates from the balcony to the stage with numbers and suits that perfectly matched Moriello’s “magical card.”
Holms thanked local individuals and businesses who have helped to ensure the program’s success: police commissioners Fran Collier-Clemons and Charles Yost, Crown Prints, First Student, Parkway Auto Body, Stew Leonard’s, Fleet Auto, and program coordinator Debra Beierle of Norwalk Public Schools.
While this school year’s D.A.R.E. program is ending, Holms is gearing up for the D.A.R.E. summer camp, which he said is open to the graduates.
“The first week — starting June 20 — is already booked, but we have some openings for the second week,” Holms said. “That runs from June 27 to July 1 — we still have about 20 spots left. People can go to the front desk at police headquarters to sign up. We do all sorts of fun excursions with the kids.”
Cost of camp is $200 for the week, Holms said.