WHEELING - A small piece of plastic and a clean urine test can earn hundreds of high school students free food and other perks in Ohio and Marshall counties.
Now this same program is coming to Belmont County - as long as the community wants to get involved and parents are willing to pay a yearly fee.
Local businesses and organizations are being asked to help reinforce teenagers' choice not to do drugs. Drug Free Clubs of America is expanding to high schools in Belmont County.
Photo by Shelley Hanson
Angie Ferguson, executive director of the Drug Free Clubs of America, and Tom Burgoyne, former Ohio County sheriff and a Wheeling Elks Club member, read a pamphlet that will be mailed to Belmont County high school students’ parents this fall.
It already has been established at high schools in Ohio and Marshall counties, thanks to the efforts of Executive Director Angie Ferguson, former Ohio County sheriff Tom Burgoyne and the Wheeling Elks Club, and Wheeling Hospital officials Dr. Clark Milton and John DeBlasis. Gary West of Wheeling helps cover the cost of running the program by paying $40 per student. Parents are asked to cover the remainder of the cost - $20.
Pamphlets explaining the club will be mailed to students' parents in Belmont County sometime in September.
"In each of our schools, even if a student chooses not to sign up for the program, parents still have this as a tool to open that dialogue with their kid," Ferguson said. "I've talked to a lot of parents. It's not that they don't want to, it's that they don't know how to begin that conversation. They don't want to sound like they're accusing their child of anything. They don't know how to just bring it up."
In return for the club membership and perks that come with being a member, the teenagers must take a urine-based drug test. Testing will conducted at their school. The samples will then be collected by hospital workers. The results will be overseen by Milton and only will be shared with the teen's parents. Results will not be given to the school.
If a teen tests positive, the parents are notified and the results are explained. The parents are then referred to Youth Services System for additional help.
The test cannot detect past alcohol use.
Teens who test negative will receive a photo identification club card that can yield them free food, wares or services at participating businesses. For example, in Moundsville, any club member who purchases a dozen doughnuts at Quality Bakery can get another dozen free.
In Ohio County at Wheeling Park High School, club members get to skip to the front of the cafeteria line on turkey dinner day. At the downtown Wheeling DiCarlo's Pizza, club members who purchase pizza get a free slice when they show the card.
At Grand Vue Park in Moundsville, cardholders get a voucher for a free zipline ride. West Liberty University offers a $500 scholarship to students who have been a member of the club for four years.
To keep the teenagers on their toes and coming back for more free stuff, random retesting occurs throughout the school year. Ferguson said there are now 200 club members at WPHS alone. She described the club as low key and student idea-driven. There are not a bunch of meetings for participants to attend, though some groups do have officers.
Ferguson said the point of the club is to help making the right choice easy for teenagers. For example, when their peers pressure them to try a drug, they can simply tell them "I can't" because they might get tested and lose their ability to get free stuff.
"A huge piece of our strategy relies on the community to back up the efforts the students are making," Ferguson said.
Belmont County businesses or groups interested in becoming a reward center for drug-free teens can call Martins Ferry Police Chief John McFarland, who is heading up the initiative there, at 740-633-2121. Businesses can also call Ferguson at 877-929-3322 or 513-225-1011.
Ferguson's father Joe Newcomb, a retired Cincinnati firefighter, co-founded the Drug Free Clubs of America organization in 2006. Burgoyne serves on its board of directors.
Burgoyne said the program got started locally after Newcomb moved to Florida and became friends with West. West then introduced Burgoyne to Ferguson in 2009. The program started in 2010 in Ohio County and then moved into Marshall County.
Burgoyne, who also worked as Drug Enforcement Agency officer, said after years of trying to fight the war on drugs via police work, he believed the club program could help. He described the drug problem in the Ohio Valley as a "plague."