Despite the lack of local government or grant funding, steering committee members of Tamaqua's 20-year Drug Abuse Resistance Program, D.A.R.E., are not giving up on the program.

"We currently don't plan on changing anything to the program," said Dwayne Hacker, program president and Tamaqua police officer. "The program works. All we need is funding."

Prior to 2009, a majority of the state funding came from grants. After they were no longer available, the Tamaqua borough picked up a portion of the tab for 2-1/2 years before saying it couldn't afford to keep the program in the budget. Along with state budget cuts over the past few years, this meant the Tamaqua DARE Steering Committee had to become their own cheerleaders and financial backers.

"Drugs and crime are much more prevalent now more than ever. It is a terrible time to for state and local officials to pull funding from this," said Mary Gurcsik, a committee member.

Hacker said committee members and local police officers don't want the program to go away.

"Although without financial support, we might not be able to keep the program going," he said.

Key partners in the DARE program includes the Tamaqua Area School District, Tamaqua Rescue Squad and West Penn Township Police Department. In the past, West Penn Township, Tamaqua and Rush Township police departments have provided specially trained officers to participate in the program, including Tamaqua police officers Dwayne Hacker and Michael Hobbs, Rush Township officer Duane Frederick and West Penn patrolman Jason Lorah.

Prior to this year, police officers from all three departments would spend a combined total of over 350 hours annually, teaching or participating in the DARE program each year. Most of it was volunteered time.

Committee member Forest Rolko stressed that Tamaqua officers Hobbs and Hacker are employed full-time as police officers.

"We can't ask each one to also volunteer 100 hours as well," he stated. "How would they find time?"

In the past, Tamaqua officers were given paid comp time for the daytime hours they spent teaching the program. This didn't include over 200 combined hours. The West Penn Police Department still provides comp time to participating officers.

Since DARE's inception into the Tamaqua schools in 1990, over 3,570 local youth have graduated from the program. In addition to educational materials designed to re-inforce the advantage of a drug free life, the 10-week Tamaqua Area DARE program includes the annual DARE Challenge and graduation for fifth grade students. It also provides additional instruction at the seventh- grade level, school-wide assemblies for Tamaqua Area, Marian High School and St. Jerome's Regional School students, and a yearly scholarship program.

"I wish we could expand and help even more kids," said Rolko, who started in 2004 when his daughter was going through the program. He received numerous thank you cards from students after completing the program.

"The program helps children build confidence and stand up to peers," said commitee member Rochelle Evanousky, who has volunteered almost 17 years with the program. "The program also shows kids you don't need a crutch to feel good."

Jay Gursick, 23, from Philadelphia, is a Tamaqua DARE graduate.

"In reality, the DARE program doesn't really keep you off drugs; it gives you the knowledge to understand what sort of drugs are out there, how they can affect you and others, and what you can do to avoid them," he said. "When it comes down to it, each individual has to make a choice to go down that road. Drug and sex education issues go hand in hand.

"If students aren't learning about them in school, when will they? What percentage of the school district's children learn about them directly from their parents? If they have no knowledge about it, what will they do when confronted with that situation? If it wasn't for DARE, I would have had no idea how to safely and politely refuse that type of pressure when I was in college."

"The DARE program involves many fun and educational activities taught to students to educate them about drugs, bullying, alcohol and smoking," Rolko said.

Lisa Shilko, DARE Challenge committee chairwoman, said the DARE Challenge is used as a way to keep the students interested in the program.

"DARE Challenge provides a positive interaction between the children, professionals and community to help students realize they do not need drugs to have fun," she said.

Since its inception, a number of well-known personalities have participated with students at the DARE Challenge, including bicycle stuntmen, sport cheerleaders, Retro Bill, the strongest man, race car driver Jeff Gordon's pit crew, James Warren, Jeff O'Lear, WNEP-TV weather forecaster Joe Snedeker, Crazy George and more.

This year's DARE Challenge, which is being held today, is held every year at the Tamaqua elementary school and consists of many hours of fun activities and events for students, instructors and families. In between each activity, students are asked questions related to drug and substance abuse.

This year's DARE graduation is set for April 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the Tamaqua Area School District Auditorium.

"If the program helps one kid, it is worth it," Hacker said. "Drugs and alcohol destroy lives, family and community. We must depend on the generosity of the public in order to continue trying to positively impact the younger generation."

To make a donation, send a check or money order, payable to Tamaqua Area D.A.R.E. Steering Committe, 320 East Broad Street, Tamaqua, Pa., 18252.

Hacker continued by saying, "Without the partnership of parents, school and community, the program will die."