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‘Coach’ Justice Promotes GameChanger Program at Wheeling Park High School

photo by: Photo by Joselyn King

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice promotes the Gamechanger anti-drug program at Wheeling Park High School Monday morning.

WHEELING – West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice told Wheeling Park High School students they really do need to be afraid of the dangers of drugs – especially fentanyl – as they move into adulthood.

Justice, the state’s “head coach” for GameChanger, and first dog Babydog came to WPHS Monday to promote GameChanger, an anti-drug program that starts there in the fall. Justice – who is the head girls basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School – said he was asked to be “head coach” of the GameChanger program by Joe Boczek, the program’s executive director.

“We all know it, but like it or not, drugs can cannibalize us,” Justice told staff and students gathered in the school’s J.B. Chambers Performing Arts Center. “They can absolutely take our lives away. It doesn’t matter – Black or white, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor. They touch every single one of us all of the time.”

He noted many positive things are happening in West Virginia right now, but that these could be derailed if drug use continues to take further hold in the state.

“West Virginia has been ravaged by this drug situation off the chart,” Justice said. “And if we don’t get this right, we don’t have a chance. We don’t have a prayer.”

WPHS Principal Meredith Dailer said the goal of GameChanger is “to build an anti-drug culture in the schools” starting with WPHS.

High school students who participate in the program will be trained to make anti-drug presentations to their peers and create an anti-drug atmosphere within the school. From there, the students would move on to mentor students in the middle schools and elementary schools in Ohio County.

The school is now looking to hire a “coach” to oversee GameChanger at WPHS, and the program will start there in the fall, according to Dailer. The coach – who will likely be a faculty member hired from within – will be paid a stipend of $5,000 annually.

The program requires a three-year commitment by school districts, and the cost to Ohio County Schools is expected to be $38,200 annually over that time, according to Dailer.

Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration of Wheeling has offered to pick up the expense during the three-year period. Owner Bob Contraguerro was among those present at WPHS Monday to greet Justice.

Justice told Contraguerro he sincerely appreciated Contraguerro’s contributions to GameChanger and the community at large over the years.

Contraguerro said his three sons – Bob Jr., Tom and Josh – were the ones who brought to him the idea of supporting the GameChanger program.

“And I couldn’t think of anything better to support than keeping children off drugs,” he said.

Bernie Dolan, executive director of the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletic Commission, said he first learned of the problem of drug use among students – especially student-athletes – about 10 years ago from William Ihlenfeld, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia.

Injured athletes were being given opioids while recovering, and then were becoming addicted, Dolan continued.

He said the GameChangers program could help by giving students someone to speak with as they deal with drug-related pressures.

Ihlenfeld said drugs such as heroin and cocaine now are on the decline as they have been replaced by fentanyl – a synthetic drug which is cheaper, and can be produced without limits.

“We seize it, and they just make more,” Ihlenfeld said.

He told those present that the best way to combat the problem is by educating the public on the dangers of fentanyl.

Last year, GameChanger forged a relationship with the West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute and the Hazelden/Betty Ford Foundation to develop prevention education curriculum tailored to West Virginia schools.

Desiree Vazquez, programming director with the Hazelden/Betty Ford Foundation, virtually addressed those at WPHS Monday. She explained the success of the GameChanger program in keeping youths away from drugs is that it “honors their dignity,” and focuses on partnering with them to help them make their own decisions.

Justice said he realizes many youths want to experiment with drugs, but he told them they really don’t have to.

“Nobody had more fun than me when I was young, and I never once had anything close to drugs,” he said.

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