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The Santa Maria Police Honor Guard posts the colors during the D.A.R.E. graduation at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge on Thursday.

More than 800 sixth-grade students took the pledge to stay drug free and make responsible, informed choices during a Thursday morning graduation for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program.

Claps and cheers filled the Santa Maria Elks Lodge as students, clad in black D.A.R.E. shirts and wristbands, from Santa Maria-area schools gathered to celebrate the end of their 10-week program.

Mike Wheeler, the Santa Maria Police Department officer who has headed the D.A.R.E. program since summer, spoke about the significance of the logo.

“You all got a T-shirt and wristband to remind you of the D.A.R.E. program and help you remember that there are people in your life who want you to succeed,” he said. “I’m one of them; so are your parents and teachers. We’re here today to support you, and they sacrificed to give you this D.A.R.E. program.”

The D.A.R.E. curriculum, which was originally developed with a staunch anti-drug message, was revamped over the last decade to emphasize the importance of making healthy, responsible choices in everyday situations. Students are taught to not just avoid or refrain from ingesting illicit substances, but to evaluate every potentially deleterious situation and those who are involved with it.

“We want to give students the tools to stop and think, ‘Hey, I don’t have to do something just because somebody else is encouraging me,’” Wheeler explained. “The hope is that it carries over. Making good decisions applies to everything, not just drugs, alcohol or gangs.”

Seven students — one from each school in attendance — were presented by Wheeler as winners of the D.A.R.E. essay writing contest. Though unique in their delivery and content, all essays touched on the importance of making smart, risk-averse choices.

“The D.A.R.E. decision-making model will help me in the future when I encounter a risky situation,” Eileen Ventura, the Alvin Elementary essay winner, said before delving into the importance of refraining from drug use. “Some drugs affect your body … and may cause heart, lung or liver damage. It is important not to do drugs so you can live a normal, healthy life.”

Raymond Padilla, the Bruce Elementary essay winter, touched on his experience witnessing a family member struggle with tobacco use.

“Cigarettes can lead to lung cancer and [can] put a hole in your throat,” he said, most likely referring to a tracheostomy, an independent airway in the throat use to breathe. “My uncle has cancer and [doctors] put a hole in his throat.”

As Wheeler prepares to educate a new cohort of students, he said he could not have more pride in his inaugural class of graduates.

“Seeing the light in their eyes and their willingness to participate makes it easier for me to keep going,” he said.

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