By Barbara Bellinger
Needles on the Ground
A homeless man sits calmly at a beaten-up picnic table in Washington Jefferson Park. His blue eyes glaze over as his body slowly slumps until he is leaning on the table. The heroin rushing through his veins puts time on slow motion for the man as he begins to count down each minute until his next fix.
Mike Smith (name has been changed to protect his identity), 40, has been doing drugs since he was 11 years old. He considers himself a “clean” drug addict. By that he means he takes care of himself, he doesn’t steal, he works for the money that buys his dope and he takes care of his needles.
“I have a little red container in my backpack,” Smith said. “I put [needles] in it. And, at the needle exchange, I exchange them for the exact same amount that I got.” However, not everybody is as “clean” a drug user as Smith. “A lot of people just throw them on the ground or whatever. They don’t care,” Smith said.
The drug users who “don’t care” place more people than themselves at risk. “I wouldn’t want a kid to reach out and pick [a needle] up and do something with it so I make sure to dispose of it correctly,” Smith said.
At the Head Start location in Whiteaker, the administrators and educators are concerned with the users who don’t dispose of their needles correctly as some have, in the past, found their way to the center’s grounds.
However, due to the proactive nature of the staff and their adherence to strict safety protocols, the school maintains a safe and productive arena for their young students to learn and grow.
Head Start of Lane County purchased the land and school where Whiteaker Head Start resides nine years ago. Since then, the buildings have gone through a series of much needed improvements funded by various community block grants including a new roof, removal of lead-based paint and other plumbing and flooring improvements.
As with most of their centers, the need for education in the Whiteaker area is much bigger than Head Start can serve. The family must provide proof that their income is below poverty level and then join the wait list. A wait list that is, according to Aimee Sylvestre, director of operations for HSOLC¸ above 200 children per each site.
The Whiteaker center educates preschool children ages 3-5. Due to the young age of their students, the homeless and drug issues in the Whiteaker neighborhood have been areas of concern since the school’s inception.
“Because of the neighborhood we get a lot of homeless and migrant people that come through the area and a lot of times they are addicted to some sort of substance,” Sylvestre said. The Whiteaker staff sweep the grounds daily before the children arrive to ensure safety.
“The biggest issue we have in [the Whiteaker] is sometimes I have to go out and ask someone to move on,” Sylvestre said. “They will typically leave debris behind like alcohol bottles and/or syringes, things like that.” In the case of drug paraphernalia, the trained staff handles the collection and disposal of used syringes and the Center has a Sharps disposal unit on-site.
At Whiteaker, this does not happen very often. In the past six months, the school has had only two issues and both were resolved before the children arrived. Trasi Fugate, a third grade teacher at the school, commented that the safety protocols they have in place are not unusual and are considered standard practices at educational facilities located in neighborhoods with populations that could be deemed harmful to the students.
“We love being in the Whiteaker community,” said Annie Soto, executive director of HSOLC. Furthermore, most of the people they see on the grounds at the Whiteaker Center are just plain homeless and hungry and need a little extra help to get back on their feet. The Whiteaker community chips in to make their neighborhood safer and help houseless people in need.
Every Thanksgiving, the Whiteaker Community and the Culinary Arts program at Lane Community College hosts a day-long Thanksgiving dinner event at the school. See slideshow of LCC preparation and event here.
The residents of the Whiteaker neighborhood also help to keep their streets and parks clean.
“Neighbors will call and tell me they saw a person outside who said their legs weren’t working and could I come get them,” said Dave Whitaker, detox tech at Buckley Center, a detoxification and sobering center located in the Whiteaker neighborhood.
The “sobering station” is a large tiled room with a drain in the middle and a toilet in one corner. The door does not have a handle on the inside and locks from the outside to keep people from wandering around.
People who are too drunk or high to function without help come to the sobering center. Some arrive on their own and the police drop others off rather than take them to the overcrowded jails. They remain from four to the maximum of eight hours sleeping enough of the drugs or alcohol off in order to safely return to the outside world.
“Before a person can come on the premises, they get searched by one of the staff and all alcohol, drugs and needles are confiscated,” Whitaker said. But, the staff doesn’t always find alcohol or drug paraphernalia.
“People who come in to use the sobering services on a regular basis, know the policy and stash them somewhere,” Whitaker added.
Both Buckley Center and Monroe Street Police Station have outside needle drop boxes. The drop boxes always have used needles in them. Tod Schneider, crime prevention specialist at the station, commented that any needle in the box means one less needle on the streets.
“There’s one thing to being a junkie to being a drug addict, you know? You can harm yourself. I don’t care,” said Smith, when asked about users who throw their needles on the ground. “But, there’s another thing about harming other people, when it comes to harming kids, to me that is just wrong.”
“It’s bad enough that we’re on the drug, you know what I mean? But, we’re not; we’re not all bad people.”
Accordions and Potty Charts
She stands on tiptoes encased in miniscule black tennis shoes on the wrong feet. He curiously tastes a green plastic bear, grins widely and says it tastes like ham. Another little boy thinks carefully before saying that bears like to eat is food.
They cluster around a wide-eyed, smiling woman wearing a red Christmas sweater emblazoned with large stockings filled with multi-colored presents. This multitude of chattering, fledgling birds has her avid attention. Each child hears their name or receives a hug as they swoop in and around the cheery woman at the center of their group.
Trasi Fugate, third grade teacher, doesn’t miss a thing. Her eyes constantly roam the classroom and search out things to praise: a drawing, a snowball game, a bracelet of bells and beads. Fugate’s fun personality reflects in her co-worker’s opinion of her. “She makes it awesome coming to work each day,” says Sarina Harwell. “We’re like a big family.”
Fugate has taught at the Whiteaker Head Start Center for 7 years. Her philosophy of teaching dovetails with the goals of Head Start of Lane County. The success of the child depends upon the success of the family. Coupled with her firm belief that a child must be educated at a developmentally appropriate level, the budding students in her classroom appear positioned for success.
“I never really liked working with 3 year olds,” Fugate says. She had hopes of being assigned to a 4-year-old classroom when she joined the ranks of educators at Lane County of Head Start. However, these “different bodies”, as Fugate calls them, have become endearing to her. They just need a little more help.
This help appears in the form of a partnership between the parents, the child and Fugate. She works to develop individual plans and strategies, whether it is to learn about something she is interested in or the more basic necessities like potty training.
“Sometimes it is as easy as reminding them to go,” she says laughing, making a pushing motion with her hands. “Remember it’s potty time. Remember you’re a big boy. Now, remember, you’re in underwear.”
Others have a harder time of it. And, that is when Fugate pulls out the potty chart. She collaborates with the parents and the potty chart goes up on the walls at school and at home. Each time the tyke makes a successful toilet trip, a Velcro-backed pair of underpants goes up on the potty chart.
The simple action of giving the child the underpants stamp and letting her proudly put the stamp on the chart herself effectively “trains” the child without them even knowing it.
Her students scurry from one activity to the next, carefully orchestrated to provide a routine and a set of rules to fit with the transition from 2 to 3-year-old.
“Blaaah, bloooh, blaaaaaaah, bloooooooh,” the grating sounds of an accordion fill the air. The scampering children come to a screeching halt and raise their scrawny arms in the air. Wide-eyed, they turn to the front of the classroom where Fugate stands with a tiny purple and magenta, metallic-colored accordion in her hands.
“What time is it?” she asks. “Clean up,” they shout. The room becomes a bustle of disorganized activity as each child dashes around picking up tiny penguins, multi-colored plastic bears and other odds and ends that were pulled out during playtime.
“They’re fabulous cleaners,” says Fugate with the face-wide grin that is present every time she talks about kids.
However, Fugate’s smile wanes as she reflects on some of the less pleasant aspects of her work. Her preschool classroom curriculum must meet guidelines set by the federal government. And, that includes a trickle down from the No Child Left Behind act of wanting children to write and perform in ways above their developmental capabilities.
“I try really hard to stay developmentally appropriate in my classroom,” Fugate says. “Some children are ready to write their name at age 3, other children can’t hold a pencil in their hands. We’re pushing children to do things that they’re not ready to do.”
Fugate believes this makes children feel like they’re not good enough. She comments that if children are taught that they are failures when they are only 3 years old, it will kill their love for education.
“If you don’t ever feel good enough, why should you try?” Fugate says. “I want children to feel empowered.”
Fugate’s enthusiasm, passion and belief that she can make a difference in the future reflect out of the eyes of each 3-year-old running madly around her classroom.
Q&A with Tod Schneider, Crime Prevention Specialist, Eugene Police Department
Tod, how long have you worked for the Eugene Police Department?
I have worked for the EPD for 25 years. I’ve worked at the Monroe station as long as it’s been around, which has been just a few years. It’s scheduled to close next year though.
What should people do when they find a syringe or other drug paraphernalia on the sidewalk/park/playground?
Children should not pick them up. Instead they should find a responsible adult to do so. Adults have at least a few options:
# 1. Pick it up carefully. This can be safely done as long as you don’t poke yourself with the needles. Thick gloves, tongs or similar tools can provide protection. Wash your hands afterwards.
Drop the needles in a puncture-proof container, such as a hard red plastic detergent bottle (put a warning label on it!) or an official sharps container. These containers can be purchased through Sanipac, most pharmacies or many big box stores for between $4-7. These are one-time use containers. They can be disposed of for free at the Glenwood disposal site, where there is a box for this purpose.
# 2. The HIV alliance also provides drop boxes at the following locations:
* HIV Alliance 1966 Garden Avenue Eugene
* Lane County Public Health (former location) 135 East 6th Eugene
* Whitebird Clinic 341 E. 12th Eugene
* Buckley Center 605 W. 4th Eugene
* Eugene Police Station 788 W. 6th Eugene
# 3. You can also call the HIV alliance for safe pick up and disposal at 342-5088.
# 4. You can also call the police at 541-682-5111 and ask to have needles or contraband picked up.
What should people do when they find bottles of alcohol in public spaces?
If you choose to handle these, and they appear to be abandoned, empty them out and recycle the containers. Use gloves and/or wash your hands afterwards.
How should parents educate their children without using scare tactics? What should they tell them to do if their child finds a syringe or bottle of alcohol?
These fall into the same category as many other hazards, ranging from broken glass to unsecured weapons. Tell your kids: don’t touch it. Ask an adult to deal with it.
Schools occasionally find these hazards on their playgrounds. What responsibility as caretakers do they have to inform the parents of their safety practices and procedures?
It’s always a good idea to keep parents aware of any issues that could affect their families. They can reassure families about their procedure for cleanup when they find needles, broken glass, etc. For example they might say, “every morning our staff patrol the area for any hazards and remove them.”
What is the most effective manner teachers could educate their students on what to do if they find a syringe on the playground?
This is just a basic safety issue that can be covered in a matter of fact manner. They could have show and tell, or a slide show, and say “what would you do if you found this?” Show broken glass, needles, bottles, weapons, etc. The answer in each case should be the same: leave it alone, go tell a trusted adult.
Do you hold crime prevention classes? Crime education classes?
I provide classes customized to the needs of the audience. If groups want training they can contact me to discuss their specific needs. I can be reached at 541-682-8186 or email@example.com. The best way for parents and neighbors to make schools safer and more effective is to volunteer time or funds.