“Big” Al Szolack discusses importance of avoiding drugs with Do Hugs Not Drugs

Athlete reveals his own substance abuse at school presentations

Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Mullica Hill recently hosted guest speaker “Big” Al Szolack, a former basketball player, to talk to students and parents about the importance of avoiding drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.

Szolack’s presentations – called Do Hugs Not Drugs – included handing out a packet on the damage drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and vapes can do to the human body. He also displayed a jar of tar a third of the way full to demonstrate how that substance can damage the  lungs of someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day.

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“I’ve been traveling around the country for many years, speaking with my Do Hugs Not Drugs program,” said Szolack, who also presented a plaque to the school’s principal, Karen Russo, as a thank you for hosting him.

“I give parents a little bit of an education on not how to raise your kids,” he added, “but some of the suggestions and things that we can do to cut down the odds of your sons or daughters turning to drugs or making poor choices or poor decisions.”

Szolack showed a bowl loaded with two cups of human phlegm – the amount a person with emphysema can cough up – and a basketball he popped with his bare hands to emphasize what happens to a brain on drugs. He also referred to instances when an individual who makes poor decisions can hurt themselves or others.

Szolack speaks from the heart and knows of what he speaks: He became a cocaine addict and alcoholic after the death of his mother.  

“My friend told me it was going to help me,” he recalled of his substance abuse. . “But my friend lied to me. He told me it was going to help me for two weeks; it turned into seven years. Seven years of living hell.” 

Szolack eventually became what he called “a big-time drug dealer” to afford his own drugs.

“… My own personal habit grew from being free to up to $1,000 a day at times,” he noted. “$1,000 a day is, needless to say, I’m lucky to be alive.”

Szolack told parents and students about how cocaine “destroyed his life” and “raped” him of everything he had, including a fiance. But his unexpected savior was an elderly woman who – after he confessed his sins to her – gave him a hug. 

That’s what inspired his Do Hugs Not Drugs program.

Szolack’s mission is to help kids avoid mistakes he made. He also gave two tips to parents to help support their kids.

One was to develop a codeword with their kids to show them when they’re in a bad situation so their kids can use their parents as an excuse to get out of a bad situation. The other was for parents to stay up and wait until their kids come home and when they do, give them a hug and a sniff. Szolack cited his own experience with his daughter to show how this could work.

He also talked about suicide as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem” and exhorted his audiences to keep on living.

“I got a text from a police officer when I went home today saying that he was here and that you did a great job and we saved a life today,” he said.

Those at risk of suicide can call the national hotline 988. Szolack offered his phone number, (856)478-6030, and email, 32bigal@comcast.net, should any need to talk to him for help.

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