Nick Wollweber and Daniel Rinaldi have something in common.
They both received an award from the Oceanside SAFE Coalition, a drug use prevention and awareness organization founded in Oceanside in 2015. More important, both are using the power of human connection and vulnerability to fight stigmas associated with drug use and mental health.
Wollweber and Rinaldi were honored at a recent event that looked back on the many contributions the coalition made last year, including its 10-years-later Hurricane Sandy coastal cleanup and its ever-popular Prevention Night. Wollweber, 18, received the Outstanding Youth Award, and Rinaldi, 43, was presented with the Coalition Development Award.
Dealt a bad hand
Wollweber met Sara Dowler, one of the founding members of the coalition — whose acronym stands for Substance Abuse Free Environment — at Oceanside High School. Dowler was Wollweber’s teacher in a class called Redefining Mental Health. She was there for Nick again when he lost his older brother, Joseph, to a drug overdose in 2019. At 14, Wollweber was a freshman at the school.
“I was given a bad hand,” Wollweber said. “And the only way I know how to deal with that is to prevent other people from going down that road that my brother did.”
Now he tells Oceanside high teens his brother’s story, as well as that of his own mental health struggles, challenging the stigma that men can’t be vulnerable and share their feelings, while stressing the importance of having a support system. Wollweber started the safe coalition’s Creating Connections events, which bring teachers and students together to create a better support system in the school.
“I know my brother would want me to just do the best with what I was given, and no matter how much I would rather have him be here, that’s not the reality,” he said. “And the reality is that other people are struggling like he was — silently — and there needs to be a solution. In my brother’s situation, he didn’t have that support system, and he kept his struggle silent.”
When Wollweber visits the school, he stresses that mental health challenges do not discriminate. Gender, age, race, economic status — “It doesn’t matter,” he said. But the response to it does. Steering clear of unhealthy coping mechanism, such as using drugs and alcohol, can “lead to more dangerous things,” he added. And people — more specifically, boys and men — shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask for help when they are dealing with mental stress or abuse.
“The people that abuse drugs aren’t bad people,” Wollweber said. “They’re just struggling, and they’re looking for that escape.”
He is now pursuing a career in law enforcement while also working with law in the coalition. He is told by police official that there are an average of 24 overdoses per year in Oceanside — two per month. “I want to get that down to zero,” he said.
As for the award, Wollweber said, “I look at it as not an award for myself — I look at it as an award for the work that needs to be done.”
Rethinking ’Rat Park’
Rinaldi, a lifelong Oceanside resident, said he always watched the good work the coalition was doing “from afar.” But after seeing the immense positive impact the organization has made on the community in eight years, he decided to join a year ago. He brings decades of community psychology experience, including 10 years as the assistant director of community programming at the Hofstra Counseling Center.
Rinaldi started off small, chipping in at meetings and spit-balling new ideas that could be fun and helpful to the community, like the mental health check-in booths that have been implemented at the high school. Along the way, he found collaboration, partnership and “honestly, some friendship out of it,” he said. Which Rinaldi appreciates, considering what he knows about the “Rat Park” experiment undertaken by psychologist Bruce Alexander at the Simon Fraser University in Canada in the late 1970s.
“There was a rat in a little cage all by himself, running on his little treadmill,” Rinaldi explained. “And they ended up putting drugs into his water bottle, and of course the rat became addicted to drugs. And what (Bruce) Alexander very, very cleverly figured out was, well, of course the rat’s addicted to drugs; it has nothing going on. Look at the environment. Look at how sad of an existence it has, running on the treadmill all day by itself.”
Rinaldi, like everyone else, has an inner need to connect to another human being, he said, even if just on the most basic level of acknowledging another’s existence. Which is a first for some, he added, drawing on his experience as a practicing psychologist. “Any human person has the opportunity to be present, and hold space, and listen to the other person,” he said.
So he’s using his opportunity in the coalition to “be impactful in our own communities to build a better world, a better park, for the kids, for our neighbors, for ourselves,” he said. “The coalition isn’t just about the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse and other things like that. But also creating bonds of connectivity. Connection with other people, connection with nature, connection with the arts, all things that are primary human experiences.”
For Rinaldi, the award is a win for the whole team and the friends he has made along the way. “We all share this award, because it wouldn’t be possible without everybody’s contributions,” he said.
Dowler congratulated both award winners. “Everybody loves him,” she said of Wollweber, “He’s young, he’s a doer and he just has that passion to really want to make positive changes, which you don’t usually see in younger people.”
Rinaldi, Dowler added, “really has brought a lot of fresh new ideas to the coalition, and he’s just a great asset, and we’re so happy (about) that.”