The value of the human connection is immeasurable -- Anonymous

I enter the eighth-grade classroom to chants of "Barry, Barry, Barry," in a Jerry Springer-like cadence. All the students have big smiles on their faces and I immediately have an ear-to-ear grin, thinking this is why I love working with young people. I tell the students that they just made my day and the chants resume.

Just like the first time we met seven weeks earlier, the students start with improv exercises. The students have a chance to be both serious and silly, to express their opinions, get in touch with their spontaneity and creative side and to work together to design scenes. It's a time to share and laugh together. The hour flies by in no time and I know that the mix of education and entertainment has given the students food for thought. Daniel's impression of Michael Jackson, moonwalk and all, is spot on, and has myself, and the class, in hysterics.

A week later, I'm walking through the Wilton High School cafeteria, when Kara, a sophomore, stops and asks me if she can ask a question. She tells me that I look like I like the same kind of music that she does; then she says, "What bands do you like?"

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I smile and in rapid fire succession spit out all the bands I love. She smiles, "I knew it."

We talk about how music is good for what ails ya. She's incredibly knowledgeable about bands from the '60s and '70s; soon we're having a conversation about Pink Floyd with and without Syd Barrett, what David Gilmour brought to the band when he joined in 1968, and what an incredible guitarist he is.

The next day I am with 15 Norwalk High School students who are visiting Liberation House, one of Liberation Programs' residential programs, as part of our Reality Checks Prevention Program. The students have an opportunity to see first hand the devastating effects of addiction and the impact it has had on the lives of the men in Liberation House.

They hear the residents -- some old enough to be their fathers, some young enough to be their classmates -- talk openly and honestly about the struggles they go through in an effort to turn their lives around. They hear residents talk about losing themselves to alcohol and drugs and the pain they caused themselves and those who love them.

The testimonials are the most powerful component of the program. The cautionary tales about shattered dreams and lost opportunities resonate around the room, with knowing looks on most of the residents' faces. Their message is direct: Drugs are a dead end. A no-win situation. They will rob you of a life -- your life -- which is the most important thing you have. They are giving the students a taste of Life 101.

The voices of experience tell the students, "We've done this for you, and it isn't worth it." I tell the students that if you're walking down a road and you see someone coming from the opposite direction, it's not such a bad idea to ask them what lies ahead, both the possible dangers and detours. When you use drugs and alcohol you may not be able to choose the outcome; you may get lost in your life.

As with the 80-plus trips we have run over the years, there are always some special moments. One young resident shares some very heartfelt and poignant thoughts on his life, that from the looks on their faces, has had a definite impact on the high school students. A resident and a student participate in a dad/son role play that highlights the struggles of being a parent of a teen, yet also evokes knowing laughter. When they switch roles, Nick morphs into a hard-core dad, to the delight of his fellow students.

Our prevention philosophy at Liberation Programs is to promote the growth of young people toward their full human potential through education and skill building.

My goal is to reach young people in the most effective way possible, to increase their ability to refuse alcohol and drugs. I firmly believe that experiential programs provide the best opportunity for real learning.

Our society is adept at sending messages, especially to young people, through advertising and entertainment, about how they need to look and act to live a happier and more perfect life. Often the messages are quite subtle but in reality they are screaming out, "What is wrong with you? You don't look like this, you don't feel like this, you don't own this? Well, you need to, so get your act together."

While working with young people I stress the importance of being yourself, believing in yourself and making sure you choose for yourself instead of succumbing to what others might want you to be like or do. I remind them they have sole custody of their life, and how quickly drugs can steal that away. I talk about the importance of hanging out with people who like them for who they are, and never letting anyone step all over their life.

Experts believe that young people who do not feel good about who they are will try and change themselves quickly through drugs or alcohol.

The poem "The Guy in the Glass" about being true to oneself was written by Dale Wimbrow in 1934. Bill Parcells, former head football coach of the New York Giants, New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, created a slightly altered version of the poem. I often read it to the young people I work with.

"The Guy in the Glass"

When you get what you want in your struggle for self

And the world makes you king for a day,

Just go to mirror and look at yourself

And see what that man has to say.

For it isn't your father, mother or wife

Whose judgment upon you must pass,

The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life

Is the one staring back from the glass.

Some people may think you are straight-shootin' chum

And call you a wonderful guy,

But the man in the glass says you're only a bum

If you can't look him straight in the eye.

He's the fellow to please, never mind all the rest

For he's with you clear up to the end,

And you've passed your most dangerous, difficult test

If the man in the glass is your friend.

You may fool the whole world down the pathway of life

And get pats on the back as you pass,

But your final reward will be heartaches and tears

If you've cheated the man in the glass.

Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse healthcare agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the countywide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. Email him at barryhalpin@aol.com.