Kids coping with opioid crisis: 'I guess we've seen too much'

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Police Commissioner Richard Ross speaks with twins Christina and Christian Grierson, 10, at the McPherson Square Library.

Christina and Christian Grierson live across the street from McPherson Square, the Kensington park at ground zero of the city’s opioid crisis.

When their mother goes to work, the twins, 10, step over used hypodermic needles to get to the library at the park’s center. They spend hours there because it’s a rarity in the neighborhood: a safe zone in a place where drug use is so rampant that the librarians keep Narcan at the circulation desk to prevent people from overdosing in and around the building.

“Drugs are here — all over,” said Christina. “There are all these needles in the park.”

“People die in the park,” Christian, a cheerful child with a quick smile, said matter-of-factly. “Last time, I saw a man put a needle in his neck. I guess we’ve seen too much.”

On Wednesday, the twins gathered with a handful of other children to celebrate the conclusion of a summer program that taught them about drug and alcohol prevention, healthy choices, and anger management. There were cupcakes and prizes, and grown-ups, including Police Commissioner Richard Ross, telling the kids how proud they were of them.

CADEkids, a 30-year-old nonprofit established to help children stay away from drugs, typically works inside dozens of city schools from September through June. But when staff members read Inquirer and Daily News coverage of the library staff’s work on the front lines of the opioid crisis, they asked librarian Chera Kowalski: How can we help?

Kowalski prides herself on running “the loudest library in the city” — a place where children are welcome. There are school-year and summer feeding programs for hungry kids, and Maker Jawn, another popular program that encourages young people’s creativity and critical thinking.

But while library staffers are trained in how to administer naloxone, the lifesaving overdose-prevention drug known as Narcan, they lack training in how to respond to trauma, which haunts many of their young patrons.

Despite the scores of children who come through the library’s doors annually, Kowalski has a programming budget of just $200. CADEkids’ offer to create a free summer program tailored to Kensington children was important, she said. Two “prevention specialists” came every week to work with children 6 to 14.

“There are so few places in this neighborhood that kids can come and have fun,” said Kowalski. “And sometimes, we don’t have enough stuff to occupy them.” National attention on McPherson’s work had a byproduct: Some people and organizations sent money. And others offered to roll up their sleeves.

Douglas Alderfer, CADEkids’ executive director, said the organization’s work has become more important as the city’s needs become greater.

“We want to reach kids at a young age, to give them the tools and the skill sets to make good decisions,” Alderfer said.

Camera icon AVI STEINHARDT / For the Inquirer and Daily News
CADEkids counselors Perry Mattero (left center, back) and Tony Smith (right, back) lead a discussion during a summer program for local kids at the McPherson Square Library in Kensington.  

During the program, CADEkids counselors Tony Smith and Perry Mattero threw questions at Christian, Christina, and the other children: What is peer pressure? What are some refusal skills you could use if someone wants you to do something that’s not right? Is anger bad?

(No, they said, it’s not good or bad. It’s normal.)

“A lot of people get angry and then they do something they regret,” Smith told the children.

Christian and Christina, rising fifth graders at People for People Charter School, said they liked the program — the people, the ways it helped them sort through the things they faced in the neighborhood. They would be at the library anyway, and this was a good way to spend the time.

Ross said it was crucial that organizations like CADEkids were supplementing the efforts of the library, the police, and other city organizations.

But, the police commissioner said, the things the children were coping with are heartbreaking.

“It’s unfortunate that young people like this should have to endure conditions like that,” Ross said.

Indeed, Kowalski said, in some cases, the children who frequent McPherson Square Library are wise in the ways of things many adults don’t know about. And they’re eager, too.

“It’s a neighborhood of fighters,” said Kowalski. “They’re motivated — they want this place to reach its potential.”