While helping to plan Forest Park’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Harrison Street Café owner Sherri Ladd figured the parade would present an excellent opportunity for the police department to publicize its DARE program.

When she visited the police department, however, she was surprised to find out that the village had not had a DARE program for several years due to past budget cuts.

“I asked, ‘so who is talking to these kids about drugs?'” she recalled. The answer, she discovered, was “nobody.”

Almost immediately, Ladd went to work. She met with representatives from the village’s police department, Mayor Anthony Calderone and her various contacts from the business community, eventually coming up with the concept for a new drug and alcohol awareness group called “Hugs not Drugs.”

Along with Mary Win Connor, Ladd assembled a group of about 20 kids for the group’s first meeting, held at the Forest Park Community Center in March.

“There’s no cost to join, but the catch is you’ve got to sign a commitment letter that while you’re part of the group, if you choose to drink, drug or smoke, you must leave the program,” she said.

Hugs not Drugs members will organize fundraisers, including a May 21 pancake breakfast, to help fund future events and field trips.

“They’ll cook, they’ll serve, and they’ll clean, and whatever money we raise we’ll plan something they’ll do, which could be a dance, pool party (or other activity),” said Ladd.

In addition, Ladd will donate the proceeds from her second annual Swinging for Life women’s softball tournament to the program. Last year’s event followed the annual Relay for Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society and also raised funds for cancer research.

Though the program is intended to replace DARE, Ladd said there will be some significant differences from the approach used by DARE, which concentrates on bringing police officers into classrooms to discuss the dangers of drug use.

“We didn’t want to make it overly educational,” she said. “Talking to a 9-year-old about methamphetamines can be difficult.”

Instead, she said, organizers will try to come up with games that allow children to learn lessons about drug use in a fun atmosphere. A version of Red Light, Green Light which would require children to answer questions about drugs before advancing was one example.

The program will divide children into different age groups to ensure that activities are age appropriate. Though she originally intended the program to include children ages 8 to 18, she said there has been some demand for younger children to participate, and the age limits are flexible.

Eventually, she said, she hopes to form a panel of some of the older members of the group to visit area schools and discuss what they have learned with younger students.

“I want to have these kids talking to other kids and saying ‘I don’t do drugs,'” she said. “At this point, it just bothers me that nobody’s talking to the kids.”

She said she hopes to involve the police and fire departments as well as her fellow Forest Park business owners in the process. The business community, she said, can do their part by giving kids productive ways to use their free time and showing them alternatives to drug use.

“Maybe one day Brown Cow can take a Saturday and teach kids how to run an ice cream parlor,” she suggested. “There are a lot of possibilities.”

The pancake breakfast on May 21 will run from 8 a.m. to noon and will be held on the second floor of the Park District’s main building at 7501 Harrison Street.

Hugs not Drugs will hold its next meeting for kids on Wednesday, April 26 at 7 p.m. at the Forest Park Community Center, 7640 Jackson Blvd. New members are welcome.