Two thousand students a month, at 52 London area schools, ask their darkest questions about drug use to educators from Chabad Lubavitch Ilford Center’s Drugsline. Now the fifteen-year-old program has been selected by the National Collaboration Center for Drugs Prevention to be among seven drug education groups receiving a week of cutting-edge consultation from experts at Liverpool’s John Moores University.
Evaluating the impact of drug education is the stated goal of the conference sessions, but thousands of people helped through crises already know the benefit of ringing Drugsline. And for Chabad, managing the toll-free crisis and support line, drop-in counseling center and drug education programs has built bridges between the Jewish community and their multi-ethnic neighbors.
Most of the 1,000 calls to Drugsline each year are from parents or family members worried about a relative’s drug use. But Drugsline’s full time staff of eight, three part-time counselors and 40 volunteers are ready for anything. Recently, a 24-year-old cannabis user phoned for help off the merry-go-round of escalating need; another user experienced a flashback, reacted poorly, spent time in a mental institution and wanted help putting his life back together. As the evening wound down, the Drugsline phone rang again: a teenager professing not to be distressed by her drug use called for a boost in the right direction.
Anonymity is absolute at Drugsline so there is no real data on whether callers are Jewish. But chances are most are not. From the balcony of an Ilford hotel, a church, Hindu temple, mosque and synagogue rise into view. Of the 240,000 residents of the borough of Redbridge, where Ilford is located, only 6.2% are Jewish. Just over half the residents are Christian. Muslims comprise 12% of the population, and Hindus make up the remaining 7.8%.
Help from a Jewish group suits the traditional values of the minority groups, who tend to hesitate before seeking assistance from more mainstream services. “Drugsline breaks down barriers between one community and another,” said executive director of Drugsline UK and Chabad of Ilford Rabbi Aryeh M. Sufrin. In September, an imam from a local mosque will sit in on Drugsline’s volunteer training sessions.
Before answering one of the 1,000 yearly calls to Drugsline, volunteers undergo an intensive twelve-week training course. Listening techniques, drug information, guidance from rehab counselors and detox experts become part of the volunteers’ repertoire. Monthly in-service training sessions are ongoing to build the volunteers’ skills fielding calls.
Five years ago, when Drugsline acquired a building in the heart of Ilford, its distinct signage increased the center’s visibility and phone calls numbers have been climbing. Walk-ins to the center increased, and the counselors are now booked with clients. Traffic to the sharp, hard hitting website, www.drugsline.org, has picked up, as well. A London fundraising dinner in May brought in enough funding to begin supporting two more staff members for school visits, the core of Drugsline’s outreach.
Darren Gold and Lisa Pemberton, lead educators for Drugsline, have presented their talks at Holy Family School, Jewish Free School, Woodford Green preparatory school, Valentines High School in Ilford and scores of others. Ideally, Drugsline courses would address groups of 30, over the course of three sessions. But the demand for Drugsline educators is so high, groups are often much larger. “Every school they go to asks them to come back,” said Drugsline’s Director of Operations Christina Ball. “Kids can relate to our educators. They can talk freely to them without being judged or told off.”
On National Tackling Drugs Day, when Drugsline volunteers engineered the release of five hundred balloons to represent the latest crisis call figures, Ball asked a student if he had heard of the group. Not only did the boy recall Drugsline’s visit, but he also added the ultimate compliment. “Darren is nang,” he said, using the Anglo-slang term for “mega-cool.”
As nang as Drugsline already is, Rabbi Sufrin sees the center and phone line as but the first steps in combating drug addiction. He’d like to see Drugsline hours from evenings to after-school hours and to ‘round the clock. They are looking into creating 24/7 access with instant messaging via the website and text messaging by mobile phone. Rabbi Sufrin also envisions the construction of two or more floors above the Drugsline storefront. One would hold a day rehab center. Another floor would house a high-tech Drug Education Center providing half day, full day and evening seminars for young people, their families and Personal Social Health Education (PSHE) teachers. “The idea of a Jewish organization responding to drugs is a new phenomenon in this country, and by making our work non-denominational, our impact is even greater.”