Nearly a thousand 6th grade students packed the Santa Maria Elks Lodge on Friday morning for D.A.R.E. graduation.
Many more people, including parents, relatives, teachers, administrators and others were inside the large banquet room, creating a standing-room only situation.
“Today was the culmination for the classes I taught the past six months here in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District,” said D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) instructor Al Torres.
“I was very excited,” said student Daniel Rodriguez. “Kind of nervous because I was reading my essay to a lot of people.”
Rodriguez was one of eight students chosen to read their personal essay, which were all chosen as the best at their individual school.
The Robert Bruce Elementary School 6th grader spoke about his personal connection with drugs. He brought many to tears detailing drug addiction with both of his parents.
“Crystal meth, marijuana, cocaine, a lot of ones that I don’t know the name of. It’s just really sad,” said Rodriguez. “There suppose to be there for their kid, but they’re really not.”
Rodriguez credits his grandparents for providing a stable home life. He also emphasized the critical need for the D.A.R.E. program.
“It’s very important,” said Rodriguez. “It shows people not to do drugs and if they ever have kids not to put them through a lot of bad things.”
D.A.R.E. has been taught in Santa Maria area schools for nearly 30 years, dating back to 1990. The 10-week long course has become a rite of passage for students before moving on to middle school.
It’s taught at one group of elementary schools in the fall, with the rest going through the program in the spring.
“The D.A.R.E. program is important because it shows kids in the 6th grade to be aware of the side effects and the causes of drugs and alcohol,” said Battles Elementary student Sophia Laurel.
Laurel’s father believes the program is especially important during these sometimes turbulent times in Santa Maria.
“These kids are our future,” said Mark Laurel. “These are the kids that are going to be out there in a couple of years and impact lives. This is our community.”
Leading D.A.R.E. in Santa Maria for the past 15 years is Al Torres, a now-retired police officer with the Santa Maria Police Department.
After instructing more than 30,000 students during his tenure, Friday’s graduation ceremony marked his final one.
“I cannot teach anymore because of Sacramento not wanting retired officers to take a spot from a fulltime officer who can put into the retirement plan,” explained Torres.
With Torres forced to step down as instructor, it put the D.A.R.E. program into limbo. For a while, it was unknown if it would continue in the fall.
However, Santa Maria Police Department Sgt. Eligio Lara said a commitment has been made to keep the program going, which has received full support from city and school district officials.
Lara added a replacement instuctor will need to be recruited from within the department.
“They have send someone to school and get them qualified so they can teach the program,” said Torres.
The keynote speaker at Friday’s ceremony was Retro Bill, a well-known children’s motivational speaker, who is also an international D.A.R.E. ambassador.
For more than an hour, he warned the children about the many dangers of drugs and alcohol. He also stressed the importance of making good decisions, how to avoid bullying and handle peer pressure.
Retro Bill also thanked Torres for his many years of service and noted Torres had spent the last several weeks teaching the course without compensation.
Whoever replaces Torres will help guide students and provide them with potentially lifesaving lessons.
“I live in a neighborhood with rough people and I just imagine being in those situations and I want to be different than them,” said Oakley Elementary student Anniemarie Garcia.
Garcia also stressed the importance of Friday’s ceremony and what the D.A.R.E. program has meant to her.
“Today represents that I am drug free and I get to live a healthy life,” said Garcia.