By Laura Abruscato
The police officer recalled how he was surprised when he was talking to people who looked like they were in their 50s, only to learn they were in their 20s. The speaker was a drug enforcement officer at the March 23 Bryan’s Smile program at Paul Revere Charter Middle School, and the people he was talking about were addicts who had aged due to the toll that drugs such as heroin took on their body and mind.
But the young people the officer met didn’t start off that way.
Bryan Dunn’s life was like many kids on the Westside of Los Angeles. The Santa Monica resident was the fifth-grade president of his elementary school, and was involved in activities such as Boy Scouts, Little League and Sunday school. He had parents who volunteered and brought snacks to the games.
As a teenager, he tried alcohol and marijuana, which led to his becoming addicted to prescription pain pills, and later heroin. He entered rehab three times but later relapsed.
At age 26, Bryan died from a heroin overdose two days before he was scheduled to meet with a psychiatrist to address the depression underlying his addiction.
His mother, Dr. Melanie Gullett, wants to prevent the same thing from happening to other young people and their families.
After Bryan died in January 2014, she began a nonprofit, Bryan’s Smile. For the last two years, Bryan’s family have been offering free programs for youth ages 10-18 to attend with their parents that address the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse.
The March 23 program at Paul Revere Middle School, in addition to two drug enforcement officers, included another guest speaker, an addict in recovery, now clean for 10 years, talking about how drugs affected her life.
The program’s goal is to open communication lines between kids and parents. One mom said she and her 12-year-old had their first-ever conversation about drugs on their way home from the event.
“It did exactly what it’s supposed to do, it opened up the conversation,” she said.
The Reality Tour program was started by nonprofit CANDLE, Inc. (Community Action Network for Drug-Free Lifestyle Empowerment) in 2003, and is offered at 22 sites in North America, 12 of them in Pennsylvania. With an assist from a grant from the Palisades Optimist Club, Bryan’s Smile leases space at Paul Revere and the program is open to any family.
In addition to a short film, there are also dramatic plays acted out by volunteers, such as someone refusing drugs at a party, a teen in jail, a teen who overdosed being treated in an emergency room, and a funeral. Attendees walk around the room to watch the sobering scenes.
Friends, family and other volunteers from the community act out the scenes. Members of Bryan’s family are board members, including his father Pat Dunn, stepfather George Maranon and brother Casey Dunn.
Gullett gives a PowerPoint presentation of current trends in drug use, such as drugs that look like candy bars, smarties and gummy bears, or “skittling” when various prescription drugs are placed in a bowl and mixed together, and people take them from the bowl like the candy Skittles.
There are surveys and questionnaires to fill out with goals to set for both parents and kids, and at the end families are given talking cards to facilitate more conversation at home.
One thing Gullett suggests as homework is for families to come up with a code word to use so parents can pick up their kids if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation with drugs and alcohol.
Bryan’s Smile Reality Tours will be held on Thursday, April 20, and Thursday, May 25, at Paul Revere. Check-in is 5:45 p.m., and the event is 6 to 8 p.m. Visit bryanssmile.com to register.