A Better Way

One of the most horrific things that could happen to a community happened here. The words “something must be done” no doubt ran through thousands of minds in Midlothian back in October 1987. Two drug-using teenagers discovered the identity of an undercover police officer and murdered him.

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Janice Carey, alongside Suzanna Simonton, REACH program director.

This story made international news and spurred the book Innocence Lost, a Pulitzer Prize nominee. This tragedy, however, was not in vain. Indeed, three concerned parents did do something. They started REACH Council Prevention Services in 1988 to find a better way to help
young people stay free from drugs. The acronym REACH stands for resource, educate, activities, council and helping.

This nonprofit program continues today and Suzanna Simonton, REACH program director, alongside Janice Carey, who was one of the three charter members, fights the good fight every day. Children in the Midlothian Independent School District from sixth to eighth grade get the opportunity to hear the message of drug prevention. Before children will listen and take to heart the message, they must feel secure and safe within themselves and their environment. That opens up areas that may be troubling for many students, such as peer pressure or bullying. Some children may turn to drug activity in an effort to fit in with the group.

Others may turn to drugs as a reaction to feeling isolated if they are the target of
bullies. REACH teaches them about substance abuse to help them navigate through this minefield of avoiding drugs.

“Kids really need good information about how to deal with life as they move to adulthood,” Suzanna said. “They learn coping skills such as how to make decisions based on consequences or what will happen. They learn how, if things are bothering them, to manage their own feelings and not keep them bottled up or take them out on other people. Kids
learn it is OK for parents to have rules in the house. Kids want to make good decisions, but sometimes they are not getting support from parents. Parents are not parenting; they want to be friends. I see the anguish and hurt in kids when they don’t get that support or attention.”

The REACH Life Skills program presented in the middle schools in Midlothian is an interesting one because the students get the opportunity to evaluate the messages sent to them in the media. “We have them look at ads for a magazine and ask them, ‘What do you see?’ and then we discuss it,” Suzanna said.

The students are savvy enough to recognize the message the advertiser is hoping to send. For example, in an alcohol advertisement, the advertiser may relate the drinking of liquor to themes of relaxation or having fun.

Some of the other topics included in REACH Life Skills are self-image, making decisions, coping with anger, social skills, assertiveness, resolving conflicts, and myths and realities of drug use. Janice described the course as “a comprehensive classroom program that teaches children social and coping skills they will need to be able to say

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‘No’ to unhealthy situations. This program is taught to everyone in the class.” Suzanna added, “Sometimes we do skits about being passive-aggressive in their behavior.”

Project SUCCESS (Schools Using Coordinated Community Efforts to Strengthen Students) is a program offered to students aged 12 years and up.

“We talk to all of the kids in DAEP (Disciplinary Alternative Education Program) in sixth to 12th grade in Maypearl and Midlothian,” Suzanna said. “We present a curriculum to them about drug use, how to resist peer pressure and develop coping skills as well.”

Embodied in the REACH program named Kids Connection is the goal of learning coping skills.

“This is an elementary program. They learn not to give in to peer pressure and how to be a good friend. We try to prepare kids how to stay off drugs and how to cope with life,” Suzanna explained. Janice added, “This is a curriculum-based support group. This is not a therapy session group but a learning session group where they are in groups of six to 10 students. They learn to make good decisions and set goals. Students are referred by teachers, their parents or school counselors.”

REACH hopes to add this worthwhile program to Midlothian when funding becomes
available. These are weighty subjects, and REACH’s staff is well-qualified. All of the staffers in schools implementing the programs are licensed social workers. Suzanna graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
She went to the University of Texas at Arlington, earned her master’s in social work, and has been with REACH for four years.

“I like social work,” she said. “I have been doing this for 20 years. I love working with teenagers and kids to give them knowledge to cope with life. Families need to talk to each other more. Not just in-depth, but everyday conversations. Don’t try to be a friend,
and don’t let kids run the household.

You have to start at a young age. It is very difficult if you start at age 15 or 16.” Suzanna acknowledges that children reared in the best possible environment can still go down the wrong path.

“Even kids with rules and regulations can make bad choices but are more likely to be reined back in,” she added.

REACH also encompasses the entire family. Its Safe Homes Program reaches
out to families in the community in an effort to eliminate the illegal use of
alcohol and other drugs. The program looks for a commitment on the part of parents to furnish an alcohol- and drug-free environment. As part of Safe Homes, activities are designed to bring the whole family together for fun. Suzanna stated, “We have family
game night where we might go roller skating. The cost is only $1 for the entire family.

We think this program helps improve family bonding.” As with most nonprofit organizations, funding continues to be a challenge.

The majority of its funds come from the state in the form of grants. Some
assistance is given from the city of Midlothian and United Way. In addition, the school districts of Midlothian, Maypearl, Burleson, Joshua and Ennis provide assistance.

One of the hallmarks of humanity is when a tragedy occurs, with determination and diligence, something good and useful can come from it. The REACH Council Prevention Services saw a need, rose to the challenge and our community is better for it.

Editor’s Note: For more information about REACH, go to www.reachcouncil.org.

— Written by Betty Tyron.