New London High School students heard firsthand accounts of the devastation that heroin can have on a person — and on a family.
RISE Together, formed by Anthony Alvarado and Douglas Darby, shared that message with students at two separate presentations, Thursday, Jan. 22 at New London High School. They also made a presentation to the public that evening. At the evening presentation, there was information available for the public to take with them.
Alvarado and Darby are both former heroin users. Alvarado contemplated suicide prior to realizing he needed to clean up his life. Darby attempted suicide while in jail. Both want to teach students the dangers of heroin and other addictions before it is too late.
RISE Together was formed Sept. 12, 2013. Alvarado is the president and leads the organization from a business aspect. Darby is the CEO and works with the board to help with its research and development, community engagement and its prevention work.
Darby said he and Alvarado were going through unchartered territories at that time. Darby had just been released from prison, while Alvarado was going through his own personal struggles.
“We found each other at the right time,” Darby said of his friendship with Alvarado.
Prior to forming RISE Together, Alvarado said he had never spoken in front of a group.
“I was deathly afraid of it,” he said. “But now I enjoy it.”
Darby had prior group speaking experience. He said he was sexually assaulted as a child, so while he was in high school he traveled with a liason officer and the district attorney of Brown County to speak about breaking the silence regarding sexual assault.
“I’ve always been passionate about helping other people,” Darby said.
Since the formation of RISE Together they have made more than 140 presentations in front of more than 25,000 people. That includes 18,000 students. Alvarado said they are on track to speak in front of another 25,000 people in the next six months.
At each presentation both share their story about how they got addicted to heroin, the lows they experienced during their drug use, when they realized there was a better life for them, and what they had to do to get to that better life. Next week’s Press-Star will include those stories.
The presentation is just one aspect of helping students realize their choices matter when it comes to addictions. After each presentation, students who wanted to speak one-on-one with them were allowed to.
At the second presentation in New London, both stayed for more than an hour after the presentation to speak individually with students. Some students got emotional when sharing their story with Alvarado and Darby.
Alvarado said when they speak individually to students, both he and Darby automatically start thinking about how to help the students.
“It’s like missionary work. It’s something we want to do to give back to the community. We want to help these individuals,” Alvarado said.
He added, “For me and Doug, it doesn’t matter how many people we are in front of, those people, those that need help and are asking for help for the very first time, that’s why we do this,” Alvarado said.
Darby added, “We do a two hour presentation for everyone, don’t get me wrong. But we do that entire presentation for the three to five minutes we get with each kid that comes up to us. We do it for them. We bare our souls for two hours so they can come up and feel comfortable enough and have that ice broken just enough to come up and say, ‘I want somebody to hear my story.'”
Alvarado said students share a variety of stories. Some tell them that hearing their presentation saved their life because they were thinking about suicide. The presentation gives these students the inspiration to work through the struggle, Alvarado said.
While watching them speak individually with students, no matter how emotional a student was, each one smiled by the time the conversation concluded.
Alvarado and Darby said that is the miracle they talk about.
“We live for it. It keeps us strong in our sobriety,” Darby said.
He added, if they can help just one person, the presentations are worth the effort.
Alvarado said several students told him they didn’t want to come to the presentation, but once they heard it they realized it was completely different than everyone else’s and it made a difference in their life.
Both admit that no two presentations are the same. And sometimes it’s a struggle to relive their personal lows. But they both know it has to be done.
Their work doesn’t end after all the students have left. Students can contact RISE Together afterwards when they feel they need help.
“That’s where we set ourselves apart. That’s where we become a voice after the presentation is over,” Alvarado said.
At that point, RISE Together helps students get the resources they need to get help.
Alvarado said of the recent presentations they have done, the New London community had one of the highest number of students reach out after the presentations.
“There was more stuff discussed on this stage than I have heard in quite a few months,” he said. “That means these kids are reaching out. They are ready to change. Yes there are some problems here, but we need more support.”
After RISE Together makes its presentations at a school, it meets with school officials to discuss some of the issues students brought up. Darby said if they feel a student is in immediate danger, they will alert school officials.
In addition to their experiences being shared with students, the presentation also included Brigette Henschel who shared her experience of losing her 21 year old daughter to heroin. Emily Plank shared her eating disorder experience. Nicole Rae shared her drug experience. The Press-Star will share their stories in the coming weeks.
The New London Police Department donated money to help fund the RISE Together presentations in New London.
“It’s giving the kids an alternative look at some of the options that are out there,” said New London Police Chief Jeff Schlueter.
He added that even if only one or two students are helped by the presentations then it was worth it.
“We’re trying to outreach to the community to get people to understand that this isn’t just a law enforcement problem, it’s just not a problem at home, this is a community problem,” Schlueter said. “If we all work together, hopefully we can work on this to get some sort of resolution — get things to slow down at least.”