Local teen lauded for creative efforts to prevent drug addiction

In the summer of 2013, when Stephanie Reifman of Upper Saddle River was 13, Cory Monteith — one of her favorite actors — died of a heroin overdose.

“I was devastated,” she said. “I loved him and I loved ‘Glee,’” the TV program he starred in. “I was also curious. I didn’t really know about the problem of drug abuse, so I started to do some research.”

What she found as she continued to explore the issue was that in 2013, 26 people in Bergen County alone died from a heroin overdose; in 2014, that number rose to 42. “And it continues to climb,” she said. “I know that law enforcement officials go to schools to speak about this and show montages of people who died, but I thought that if I could tell my peers that this was something I cared about, it might help them relate to it at a more personal level. And I wanted to incorporate them into the conversation.”

To accomplish her goal, Stephanie created what she called H.A.P.P.Y. Week — the acronym stands for Heroin Addiction Prevents People’s Years. Students in the program go to an assembly where they see a short informational video — which Stephanie created — followed by a segment in which she interviews both a recovering heroin addict and a parent whose child has died of an overdose.

“I draw out their stories through interview questions,” Stephanie said.

When she was 13, Stephanie approached the alcohol and drug abuse division of the Bergen County Department of Health and Human Services for advice on securing potential speakers. She was put in touch with Spring House, the county’s halfway house for women recovering from alcohol and drug abuse.

Since then, Spring House has provided speakers — generally ranging in age from 22 to 28 — for each of the 40 presentations Stephanie has arranged for schools, synagogues, and youth groups. The first one was at her own middle school, and featured a recovering addict. At other times, the speaker has been a bereaved parent.

The network of speakers grew organically. A father whose child died of an overdose “read a news article about my program and reached out and offered to speak,” Stephanie said. “Four other parents stepped forward also. It helps them to talk about it.” It helps other students as well. “Kids don’t think about the impact addiction has on relationships. Getting to hear how it affects a parent — whose only relationship now is putting flowers on a child’s grave — is very powerful.”

Following each presentation, students can ask questions. And they do, Stephanie said, “sometimes going up to the speakers after the session to hug them or offer their condolences.”

Now 18 and a recent graduate of Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, Stephanie estimates that her program has reached some 15,000 students Indeed, her tremendous success in educating her fellow students has been recognized with a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award…

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