NJ teen wins national award for heroin education program
UPPER SADDLE RIVER, N.J. (AP) — The problem with student heroin education, Stephanie Reifman decided at age 13, was that no one was listening.
Five years later, Reifman's HAPPY Week heroin program for middle and high school students has earned her a $36,000 Helen Diller Foundation Teen Tikkun Olam ("repair the world") Award, one of only 15 granted nationwide.
Her program now reaches 40 New Jersey and New York public schools and their 15,000 students — on a zero-based budget.
"The biggest programs we had were someone from the county coming into the school to lecture," Reifman recalls. "The students were intimidated. Nothing existed about kids talking to kids."
Reifman's inspiration to become involved sprang from the July 2013 heroin-related death of actor Cory Monteith, who had played the conflicted singing football quarterback Finn Hudson in the Fox series "Glee."
Reifman says she was shocked to learn that well-heeled Bergen County where she lived was not exempt from the drug epidemic, now estimated at 99 drug-related deaths in 2016, the last year for which data is available.
"I wanted to develop something students would pay attention to," Reifman says.
So she started with a video, shown to her classmates at Cavallini Middle School. When she started high school at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, Reifman added an interview with a recovering young-adult addict from the Spring House halfway program in Paramus.
"From the time Stephanie entered Northern Highlands as a freshman, she truly amazed us with her passion and dedication in dealing head-on with the opioid epidemic that has ravished our communities," said Highlands Principal Joseph Occhino. "Her HAPPY Program was well received here, as well as surrounding school districts."
Riefman's program came to the attention of a parent whose child had died of a heroin overdose. The parent contacted Reifman, offering to tell her story of drugs hidden in stuffed animals and a habit financed by stealing money from her purse. A parent segment was then added to the program.
"After the video, it's dialogue, me and the young adult, me and the parent. We're talking to each other," Reifman said. "We avoid a lecture. Then we do a question-and-answer period with the audience."
It is during the Q&A that Reifman says she can tell the students are engaged.
"They are using information they heard during the program to ask questions," observes Reifman. "They wanted to know the effect of addiction on a twin sister, on a child. It's very different when the information is coming from someone firsthand."
Reifman did not operate her program in a vacuum. She sought review and backing from Bergen County Social Services and physicians' associations, according to Rabbi Shelley Kniaz. The rabbi, who is director of congregational education at Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, recommended Reifman for her award.
"She's what I would call a giborat hayil ("mighty hero")," said Kniaz. "She had to convince people that a shy 13-year-old could run a program in front of 500 students. She overcame her shyness to advocate for her program before social workers, school administrators, and politicians."
For her work, Reifman has additionally been named a "CBS New York 50 People to Know." She's received the Prudential Spirit of Community President's Volunteer Service Award, the Hugh O'Brien Youth Magic Makers Award for work on heroin addiction and prevention, New Jersey State Board of Education honors for community service and leadership, and is an American Association of University Women Hall of Fame inductee.
Scheduled to begin studies at the University of Michigan this autumn, Reifman says she will be turning over operation of her program to her sister, Melissa.
"The next step is to develop a written curriculum to go with the program," notes Reifman. "Our volunteers are anxious to reach as many students as possible with our message: Don't start."
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com