At the Stafford Theater Arts Center in Manahawkin, sixth grade students are performing a show about the dangers of alcohol and drug use.
Twelve-year-old Anthony Oddo plays the role of David. The character takes heroin and overdoses. EMT and police officers enter, rip off his shirt and preform CPR. Then, they take David away on a stretcher.
But this isn’t your average play. The audience of sixth graders is rushed out of the theater to follow the play outside.
“They were like yelling for us to clear the way so they could get through was very shocking,” said student Ashley Mason.
“It’s not just somebody talking to them,” said Ken Rodenbaugh. “They’re actually living it.”
David is taken to Hackensack Meridian Health Southern Ocean Medical Center. The students follow the ambulance from the school to the hospital to see the scene unfold as if it was a real life scenario.
At the hospital, staff work to revive David. In the end, he is pronounced dead. Students watch as his parents are notified of his death. Afterward, they’re moved to another room in the hospital to talk about what they just saw.
“It was hard to watch a mom lose a son that early in his life,” said student Kyle Skiendziwlewski.
“We make it as realistic as we possibly can because we want everyone one of you to remember how you felt seeing what you saw today,” said Christopher Fritz, Stafford Township community policing officer.
Ken Rodenbaugh, the Project Aware coordinator at Hackensack Meridian Health Southern Ocean Medical Center, said it was bad choices that he made in high school that got him addicted to pills. He grew up in a nice home, he was a nurse, he never thought it would happen to him.
“You don’t really care about addiction until it directly affects you. You don’t really think it can happen to you until it directly affects you. So this program is a way to directly affect the children, make it personal, without it being personal for them,” said Rodenbaugh.
Fritz has been with Project Aware for 20 years. He’s heard criticism that this is too realistic for sixth graders to witness, but he says former students tell him what an impact this play had on their lives.
“This is the exact age for them to be experiencing this,” he said.
Oddo was happy to be a part of an experience that will stay with his classmates as they grow up.
“We’re leading up to high school and middle school and a lot of this stuff does happen,” Oddo said.
The 12-year-old wants to be a police officer, so it makes sense that helping people avoid bad choices is a priority.