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Former Rikers Island officer forms coalition to expand anti-drug resources in Deer Park

Valerie St. Bernard, a retired Rikers Island correction

Valerie St. Bernard, a retired Rikers Island correction officer, said she has seen an unwillingness from some to accept that substance abuse is a problem in their Deer Park neighborhood. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A retired New York City correction officer who for years said she saw addicts incarcerated has started an anti-drug coalition in Deer Park, where she hopes to convince skeptical neighbors that prevention and treatment efforts are needed. 

Valerie St. Bernard began the Deer Park Drug Prevention Coalition in her hometown recently with other residents who know that plenty of addiction resources like counseling and rehab exist, but noticed a need for a cheerleader for that assistance, someone to point the way. 

“There’s so many programs, there’s so many people willing to help and support wherever they’re at,” St. Bernard said. 

But in Deer Park she said she has seen an unwillingness from some to accept that substance abuse is a problem in their neighborhood.

“I don’t know if they’re afraid their property values will go down,” St. Bernard said. “My thing is to save lives.”

After St. Bernard retired in 2006 from correction work on Rikers Island, she said she noticed a change in how she viewed addicts. She said that in her field, they called addicted and incarcerated people “dope fiends, crackheads. As an officer, it never dawned on me that they have a disease.”

Recently, she has been attending quarterly meetings through a Town of Babylon-organized partnership, sharing best practices with other community coalitions.

St. Bernard said she finds the collective advice from peers at Copiague Community Cares and Lindy Cares — such as getting youth to speak to their peers about addiction — helpful in combating addiction.

One of the most successful groups that partnership members point to is Lindy Cares, run by executive director Lori-Ann Novello, who like others said informing the public of resources is key.

“There’s a lot of wonderful things happening, lots of support in places, but if they don’t use them it doesn’t matter,” Novello said. “You can’t just treat and not educate and prevent.”

Pamela Mizzi, director of the Bay Shore-based Long Island Prevention Resource Center, which lends support to community groups, is involved in the town’s partnership meetings, which she said is the only such group on Long Island.

“The idea was to pull together all the coalitions with the school districts and agencies and just share information,” Mizzi said.

Mizzi said that school superintendents, law enforcement, government agencies, treatment centers and the community groups were operating independently until Babylon Supervisor Rich Schaffer suggested pulling everyone together about five years ago.

Schaffer is vocal about being raised by an alcoholic mother who killed someone in a drunken-driving accident when Schaffer was 14, leaving him to help raise his younger siblings.

“That always stuck with me, the experiences from a young age,” Schaffer said.

He said now he mentors people struggling with addiction, checking with them to see how their sobriety is going, referring them to the town-run Beacon Family Wellness Center in North Babylon for counseling and treatment.

Schaffer credits then-Councilman Tom Donnelly, now a county legislator, and Beacon director Delores Bocklet with seeing a need for and creating the town partnership.

Bocklet acknowledges St. Bernard’s experience with hesitant Deer Park residents but said that overall, the public has come around to addressing addiction.

“The stigma is starting to change,” she said, attributing some of that change to school leaders getting involved. “To not address it, you pay a far greater price.”

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