October 22, 2017

Dare to Make a Difference

Posted on May 29, 2016 by in Hometown, News, North Carolina

Officer Joey Belanger and a Fifth Grade Class

Move over McGruff, there’s a new cat in town and he’s not taking the job “lion” down.

The D.A.R.E. program, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, rolled out in schools across America in 1983 with McGruff the Crime Dog teaching kids to “Just Say No” to drugs. While the slogan may have been catchy, years of research showed that it just wasn’t effective. So D.A.R.E. America started a campaign featuring a new mascot and a brand new approach, according to Officer Joey Belanger with the Morganton Department of Public Safety.

Right: Officer Joey Belanger and a fifth grade class at New Dimensions give the new car “two thumbs up.” Click to view full image.

Belanger, along with his helper Daren the Lion, is tasked with taking the D.A.R.E. message into city schools. Although today’s students are still taught about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, that’s only one among the many life lessons that are part of the program.

Now the 10-week course also addresses topics such as bullying, internet safety, effective communication and even how to deal with stress.

“The new curriculum started four years ago,” Belanger said. “And it focuses on teaching students how to make decisions for themselves instead of ‘Just Say No,’ which really didn’t work.”

The program’s new slogan, “Keepin’ It Real,” asks students to use a decision-making model that has four steps:

  • Define – Students are asked to describe the problem, challenge or opportunity
  • Assess – Participants are taught to take a look at all of their choices
  • Respond – Students make a choice based on facts and information they’ve gathered
  • Evaluate – Participants review their decisions to see if it was a good choice or not

Belanger said this new model challenges the kids he works with to think for themselves in order to make better decisions.

While Belanger and Daren teach the finer points of critical thinking, the officer said that’s really only half of his job. He also hopes to create an experience for the students that leads them to make positive connections to the badge and uniform he wears every day.

“Some of these kids may have seen someone they care about get arrested, or had some other negative experience with an officer. I’ve even heard parents tell their kids to buckle up or behave or else they’d be taken to jail. I can’t stop those things. But I can try to reshape the way they view law enforcement. I want them to know that our job is truly to protect and serve.”

Part of changing those kinds of stereotypes and misguided mindsets comes from seeing law enforcement as a friendly face, and Belanger seems to be doing a fine job of that. On a recent visit to a fifth-grade class at New Dimensions School, he was greeted with countless hugs from both current and former D.A.R.E. students.

“I’ve been doing this a few years, and so some of the kids I taught in fifth grade are in high school now,” he said. “But even when they’re hanging out with their friends, they’ll take the time to say ‘hello’ or wave. That says a lot. I still remember my D.A.R.E. instructor and what a positive influence he had on me. I hope I can do the same for my students.”

Along with New Dimensions, Belanger also visits fifth graders throughout the city. (Burke County schools have their own D.A.R.E. program and facilitator, School resource Officer Jason Vance.) He said that’s the perfect age because they’re mature enough to get the concepts but can still have fun and relate to cartoon characters and stuffed animals.

At the end of the 10-week program, students are given a few parting gifts such as pencils and a T-shirt. But Belanger also adds his own special touch and offers up their first ticket.

“I tell them they can do anything they choose to with their lives,” he said. “It’s a Ticket to Their Dreams.”

Every student who completes the program also has the chance to attend Operation Safe Haven free of charge. The weeklong adventure is often referred to as “D.A.R.E. Camp,” but is actually a program started nearly 30 years ago by MDPS. Students are given transportation and taken on daily trips including taking in a movie and going to Carowinds.

“A lot of these kids would never have the opportunity to do those things without the camp,” Belanger said. “It’s a huge motivator for them to complete the course.”

The good intentions of programs like Operation Safe Haven and officers like Belanger may know no bounds, but their bank account does have its limitation. The city of Morganton sets aside a small amount for the D.A.R.E. program each year, but donations are much appreciated and always needed.

To help out, call MDPS at 828-437-1911 or 828-437-1211. Or email Officer Belanger at [email protected] or get in touch with Capt. Keith Bowman at [email protected].

This article by Amanda Higgins was originally posted on The News Herald.