Last Tuesday, officers with the Mountain Home Police Department held a brief ceremony at Hacker Middle School that marked the completion of a program that I hope will make a difference in the lives of the students in our community. One by one, nearly 320 sixth graders stepped forward and accepted their certificates as they graduated from the local Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E. program.
The ceremony symbolized the first step each of these students took in learning to say "no" to all the dangers that await them in the years to come. It's possible these students have already had to deal with these dangers, and I'm hopeful that D.A.R.E. will help make a difference in their lives.
From my perspective, I really wish that children this young could have a few more years to "just be kids" before they have to face the realities of life. Unfortunately, statistics from a number of studies indicate that children need these types of programs before they are even teenagers.
A recent report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that children as young as 12 and 13 become addicted to drugs and alcohol. That number jumps exponentially over the next seven years where more and more teens get hooked.
In 2008, 9.3 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 were current illicit drug users, and more than 14.5 percent of children ages 12 to 17 in this country drink alcohol, the report added.
A separate report from the National Association for Children of Alcoholics provided some more concrete numbers. It showed that more than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics and nearly 11 million are under the age of 18.
Those figures are far worse for children who live in homes where their parents are hooked on psychoactive drugs, and the cycle of addiction carries on from one generation to the next.
In the matter of fairness, I would be remiss if I didn't include that there are some signs of encouragement despite all this negative news. A report from the University of Michigan showed that the percentage of drug and alcohol use in the United States had dropped in 2015. For the first time in 30 years, there were fewer children smoking, the report also stated.
However, it's not known whether the legalization of marijuana in places like Colorado and Oregon will cause these statistics to rebound or whether they will remain unchanged.
Looking back on my teen years, I saw firsthand how drugs and alcohol affected a number of the people I grew up with, including one of my cousins. Growing up, they had very lofty goals to become successful adults.
I seriously doubt any of them woke up one day wanting to become a drug addict or alcoholic.
However, it seems clear that something caused each of them to descend into that darkness. Perhaps it started off as innocent curiosity or maybe they accepted a dare from someone they assumed was their friend.
But once they got hooked, the addiction and desire to get high sent them spiraling into a chasm that destroyed their lives while hurting those around them. A few of them finally climbed out of that pit of despair. Others never made it out alive.
Each week, I indirectly get to see how addiction affects people in our community. One of the first things I did when I started working at the Mountain Home News nearly seven years ago was typing up the names of everyone that got arrested over the past week as well as those who were sentenced for various crimes.
Within a couple of weeks, it seemed that I kept seeing the same names over and over again for the same offenses. It got to the point where I would see those same names so often that I would keep telling myself, "not again."
But that's what happens to those addicted to alcohol and drugs. They've allowed these demons to live with them each and every day. It's those demons that persuade or even coerce them to do whatever it takes to get high.
Unfortunately, addiction doesn't just destroy the lives of these people. It directly effects their families, especially their children.
This is just one of the lessons our students learn during D.A.R.E., but it doesn't stop there. Over the years, the program's focus has expanded to deal with other social issues that directly impact students, including bullying and Internet safety.
I know all too well the issues surrounding bullying. As a child and later as a teen, I was harassed constantly by the same group of kids, who would berate me, belittle me and push me around. There was one time I got beaten up because I was apparently at the wrong place at the right time.
Today, the advent of social media is taking bullying to a whole new level. With just a few clicks on a keyboard, teens and others out there can say pretty much anything they want. The Internet and social media have become an anarchistic wasteland where there doesn't seem to be any rules.
Some of the things people are willing to post online make me absolutely cringe. It also makes me wonder how many of these people would actually say those same things face to face to another person.
But that's what our children today have to face. We've seen too often in the news headlines in recent years when those unkind words convince a young child to take their own life just to escape from their tormentors.
That's why programs like D.A.R.E. have become a necessity in communities like Mountain Home. While it's sad that today's students have to grow up so fast, we have to reach out to them now before it's too late.
I sincerely hope what our sixth graders learned over the last 10 weeks will remain with them for a lifetime. Maybe once, just once, we can finally make a difference in the lives of today's generation -- our future -- so they can go on to live life to the fullest.
-- Brian S. Orban