By Reggie Ellis

All of the students at Wilson Middle School's Red Ribbon Week Assembly were older than James Eversole the first time he tried drugs.

More than 300 students sat quietly in the cafeteria and listened as the six-foot, tattooed former gang member nervously quivered as he told them how 13 years in prison began when he smoked his first "joint" with his brother when he was only 6 years old.

"I never thought I would grow up to be a junky," said James, a recovering addict at Pine Recovery in Visalia. "My mind was obsessed with drugs. It is all I could think about. Maybe if I would have chose to obsess on positive things it might have turned out different."

Marijuana and alcohol would eventually lead to harder drugs. By the time James was 9 he was using methamphetamine. At 12 he was trying hallucinogens, such as acid. By 15 he was using heroine. By his 18th birthday, James had been arrested three times on drugs and probation violations.

"I knew every floor and every cell at the old county jail," he said. "I've been in every dark hole in Bob Wiley's Detention Facility. You don't have to live with the memories that I live with, but only if you make that decision now."

When he was 19 he was handed down his first prison sentence. He spent 13 of the next 15 years in prison.

"First I went to prison and then I got in a gang," he said. "Gangs in prison is not something anyone should live through. People in prison don't care about anyone."

James said everyone has the potential to be an addict, just as each of the students had the potential to go on to greater things. His knowledge of chemicals, which he learned to manufacture drugs, could have given him the skills to become a scientist had he applied his efforts to more positive things.

"Drugs allowed me to stop caring about everything," he said. "I chose to become a criminal. When I was using drugs I was nothing. Without drugs I could have been something."

The assembly, "Truth or Dare," was sponsored by The Exeter Sun through its Newspapers in Education (NIE) program. NIE is a national partnership between newspapers and local businesses and organizations to promote literacy and raise awareness about issues for middle school age children in their communities. The assembly was accompanied by a special section of the same title that went out to participating NIE classrooms throughout Exeter.

Garrett Feltis, 22, also a recovering addict, told the students that he was 13 years old when he began stealing alcohol out of his parents liquor cabinet and getting drunk at parties.

"I thought I was cool because it made me feel grown up. It seemed like the thing to do."

As his addiction spun out of control, Garrett began stealing from his family to support his cocaine habit, which cost him $100 a day. Being honest with the students was special moment for Garrett as his younger brother and mother watched as he told 300 students something he had never spoken about in public.

"I failed as a loving family member," he said. "If I can fail then so can any of you. If I only get through to one of you today I feel I have achieved my purpose."

Both James and Garrett were followed by Armon Estrada, DARE officer for the Exeter Police Department, who gave both men a hug and big round of applause.

These guys are the lucky ones. They were able to turn things around. People like James and Garrett are not bad people, they are just people that make bad decisions."

Estrada said he was in the sixth grade when he was offered his first drug, marijuana, by a childhood friend.

"That day was the luckiest day of my life because the first time is the hardest time to say no," he said. "If you say yes or no, it gets easier to give the same answer every time after that."

Estrada said generally kids are offered drugs by a close friend, not a stranger. He said the peer pressure is always difficult but once you say no your chances of being offered decrease. He also said many students think that addiction is something that only happens to older people. However, kids are more likely to binge drink than adults, who usually only have one or two, unless they started drinking when they were young. He said generally the 5-15 Rule applies. If you start drinking after the age of 21 it takes 5-15 for alcoholism to develop. If you start drinking between the ages of 13-21 it drops to 5-15 months. Under 13 is 5-15 weeks. "If you were to start drinking heavily today you would be an alcoholic by Christmas. Your small bodies are still developing and the addiction is much more powerful."

Estrada said pretty soon, addiction cravings take over and drugs become more important that brushing your teeth or combing your hair. And while many get away with using drugs the first couple of times, eventually everyone gets caught.

Estrada said he doesn't even drink casually anymore because he didn't want to appear to be hypocrite when talking to kids about abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.

"It is legal for me to drink because I'm over 21," he said. "If I can do it, so can you."

The last speaker, Patricia Onsurez, a Community Liaison with Friday Night Live, said that even though the law says you must be 21 to drink alcohol, there are lots of beer and liquor advertisements during television programs geared toward 13-16-year-olds. She said most middle school age children think of the Budwieser frogs before they think of Mickey Mouse. She said children who begin drinking before the age of 14 are four times as likely to be addicted.

"Some adults drink to relax," she said. "But people your age don't drink to relax, they drink to get drunk."

Alcohol poisoning from binge drinking is the No. 1 killer of people under the age of 25.

"Why would they want you to watch beer commercials?" she asked the assembly. "Money?" one student asked unsure. "That's right, because they know that you will be a lifelong customer, regardless of how long that life is."

Two students, a boy and a girl, were asked to come to the front of the assembly and spin the Wheel of Misfortune. A combination of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, the students had to answer questions about types of drugs wherever the wheel stopped for a chance at some prizes.

James said drugs had spun his life out of control and it has taken a long time for his life to stop spinning. He said that he was scared when he was asked to speak in front of a school but that the thought of the children he would be talking already doing drugs and planning to use them again was even scarier.

"You have a choice today. All I have to show for my addiction is a lot of tattoos."

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