By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer
Region – Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. told a gathering of over 200 middle and high school students that their choices will define them, and that he worries about them. These students – many leaders in their schools – gathered at Worcester State University March 22, to attend Early’s 2016 Student Wellness Conference.
Early said, “… our message has always been clear: stay away from drugs and alcohol. Make good choices. These high school years can be a lot of fun. You make memories that will last a lifetime.”
Area participants included three faculty members and 10 students from Marlborough’s Assabet Valley Collaborative, and featured speaker, Shawn Loiseau, a former NFL player who grew up in Shrewsbury.
Keynote speaker, Worcester-based John Morello, presented “Dirt,” his “one-man show of substance abuse and choices.” He said that he recently lost one brother to heroin, in Marlborough, and another years ago in an alcohol-related motorcycle accident.
Morello, who is not an addict himself, is a masterful storyteller. The students appeared enraptured by his tale: swinging from broad smiles and belly laughs to serious expressions and silence.
Using hats, jackets and a cane, Morello took on the persona of teens Jason and David (also known as Pi), and Hank, Pi’s grandfather, a World War II veteran. He weaved a story from childhood into adolescence, from innocence to heroin, and from success to failure. He touched on depression, peer pressure, alcohol and drug abuse, and bullying. He spoke about imperfect parents: an overachieving absent father, a drinker, and a mother who did not lock up her pain pills.
When speaking about despair from drugs, Morello said, “I pray for the dirt to take me back to where it’s peaceful and cool. Let me be dirt someday as part of a tree.”
At the end of his storytelling, he thanked the students for listening. He shared that he had a teacher who made a difference in his life and what it felt like when his brother overdosed, for the last time.
“Life is difficult for all of us in one way or another,” he said. “Make sure that you’re OK, and have some compassion for yourself. Be a little bit more vulnerable. It’s good.”
He added, “Know your strengths and what you’re good at. Take ownership. Addiction is a disease.”
Morello’s presentation was followed by the powerful short film on prescription drugs, “If Only,” created by the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation and Millennium Health.
Loiseau, the afternoon’s inspirational speaker, is a graduate of Shrewsbury High School, who played in the NFL for the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts. He talked about how he was arrested for assault at 17, but used adversity to motivate himself.
“One mistake almost ruined my life… [but] I fell in love with doing the right things and everything fell into place,” he said.
According to Paul Jarvey, Early’s deputy director of communications/community outreach, “The students loved [Loiseau’s] talk and lined up to take pictures afterward.”