In 1992, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Bergen County accepted the challenge of providing a substance awareness program for the third and fourth grade children of Bergen County. Since 1993, “Did You Hear About Billy?” a forty-minute assembly about the danger of substance abuse, has been seen in elementary schools throughout Bergen County, New Jersey. The program’s objectives are not only to educate young children about the effects of alcohol and drugs, but to also help educators identify children who may have a problem.
During 1998-99, more than 2,500 students in 25 schools participated in this unique program, which involves students in finding a happy ending for Billy, a puppet in jeopardy of giving in to the “stuff” he carries in a paper bag. Yearly, 19 volunteers contribute more than 700 hours to a program that is the only one to reach out to youngsters at this age level. By the end of the fifth year, the number of children who have participated in the “Billy” program has reached nearly 11,000.
During the “Billy” presentation, school personnel work together with RSVP volunteers and the RSVP coordinator to strengthen the joint effort of education children about the dangers of illegal substances and the misuse of prescription drugs. In addition to eliciting their knowledge of the subject, the puppet show and follow-up discussion examines the possible reasons that Billy became so involved (scared of taking tests, parents fighting, etc.). The team of teachers, principals, health educators, and DARE officers work with the children to understand these problems, as well as encourage the kids to seek help before the difficulties become overwhelming.
It is emphasized that the “Billy” presentation is only a beginning in stimulating further discussion both in the classroom and at home. The children are also asked to write a response to the question “Can there be a happy ending for Billy?” A letter explaining the show is sent home to the parents on the day of the program.
To date, evaluation forms, letters from school personnel and a pre- and post-test that measures the student’s increased knowledge, have measured the success of the program. Although a part-time employee coordinates the program, the volunteers present it at the schools. The RSVP volunteers make hand puppets for the students so that they can role-play the show or their own scripts on substance abuse in the classroom. They have been invited to the productions in some schools. As role models, RSVP volunteers are caring and sincere community members who have taken time to address issues that are essential to the well being of the children.
In 1998, a new initiative was introduced for 6th grade students called “What Happened to Billy?” Utilizing a short video, 10 volunteers contributed in excess of 60 hours visiting with 1,000 students to provide a wider discussion on conflict resolution and the refusal skills necessary in healthy young adults.