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Drug scare transforms mom

Published Aug. 24, 2005

It was around 2 or 3 in the morning when Shirley Coletti heard her teenage daughter, Pamela, chatting with a friend.

They had come home late from a movie and Coletti wanted to check on them.

Coletti had her hand on the doorknob when something stopped her in her tracks.

They were talking about "dropping acid."

"Look, Kathy, I can make the walls move," her daughter said.

Horrified, Coletti rushed to wake up her stepdaughter, Tricia.

"What's acid?" she asked her frantically.

When Tricia told her that acid was another name for LSD, one image came to Coletti's mind: Art Linkletter's daughter, who reportedly jumped from a window to her death after using drugs.

Coletti's experience about 35 years ago prompted her to turn a family trauma into a model program for drug abuse treatment and prevention.

Now, as president of Operation PAR, Coletti's organization and her dedication to the special needs of women and children have earned her a place in the Florida Women's Hall of Fame. Each year, the governor selects three women for the honor.

"She was nominated as a leader in all areas of the field of substance abuse," said Bob Sparks, spokesman for Attorney General Charlie Crist. "The governor took a look at her credentials and was highly impressed."

Coletti, 69, remembers how devastated she was on that fateful night more than three decades ago.

Pamela remembers how her mom yelled at her and how she assured her over and over that she was okay.

But Coletti couldn't turn to her husband for support that night. A director and producer for public television, he was filming a show on a ship and couldn't be reached.

So, she called her neighbor, former State Attorney James T. Russell, for help. The two spent hours in her living room commiserating about the lack of services for families dealing with substance abuse.

At the time, Russell and former Pinellas County Sheriff Don Genung had formed a drug education program, which mostly operated as a speakers bureau. Coletti was sure the program needed to be expanded.

"I had to do something so parents wouldn't be under the same circumstances and not have a place to turn," Coletti said.

She decided to send Pamela to Indiana to stay with her first husband, who was Pamela's father.

"I think that was a pretty good solution personally," her daughter, Pamela Detrick, 52, said Friday.

Up until the night her mom caught her experimenting with LSD, Pamela hadn't tried anything harder than marijuana, and she rarely smoked that because it bothered her asthma. But her mom saw her funky posters and black lights and thought the worst.

"My mom thought I was a big drug addict. Back then, there was no place for a parent to even ask questions," Detrick said.

Today, Detrick is a program director for an outpatient substance abuse treatment center. She's a family and psychiatric nurse practitioner and holds a doctorate degree in public health.

But, at the time, the helplessness Coletti felt motivated her to team up with Russell, Genung and several other parents to form Operation PAR (Parental Awareness and Responsibility).

"She took her personal situation, her daughter's drug use, and found a way to help tens of thousands of other families. She's the epitome of what a mama can do when she puts her heart into it," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who nominated Coletti for the award.

"So many lives have been saved through her leadership and the programs she's developed."

Latvala said Coletti and Operation PAR helped her and her son when he struggled with substance abuse.

"She was there for me when I went through that with my son. Her passion and caring for families has not waned all these years," Latvala said.

Russell said Coletti is more than worthy of her recent honor.

"The success of PAR is Shirley Coletti," Russell said. "I certainly think that it's deserved. You don't know how many people Shirley Coletti kept off of drugs and got off of drugs."

Before her involvement with Operation PAR, Coletti did mostly volunteer work. But she wasn't bashful about taking a lead role in the fledgling organization.

And she wasn't afraid to ask for help, either. Her mantra is the same whether she talks about Operation PAR or families rocked by substance abuse.

"If you're reluctant to ask for help, you don't get it," Coletti said. "Out of everyone that has been asked to do anything for Operation PAR, I don't believe anyone has said no."

Operation PAR began with a volunteer staff and about 25 patients. It has grown to about 600 employees, providing addiction and mental health services to 13,000 people annually in Pinellas, Pasco, Lee and Manatee counties.

As Operation PAR's services expanded, the organization developed specific programs for women and children.

In 1988, Pinellas County donated several houses, which the organization turned into PAR Village, a residential drug treatment campus for mothers and expectant mothers. The program was developed after in-house research showed mothers with addictions do better when their children are with them.

Around the same time, PAR began COSA, an outpatient program serving mothers with substance abuse problems and their children.

As Operation PAR grew, so did its honors.

In recent years, the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association named it Organization of the Year, and the President's National Drug Control Strategy featured PAR Village as an effective program.

Coletti has garnered several awards, too. She received presidential appointments, including one to the bipartisan President's Commission on Model State Drug Laws.

In 2000, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of South Florida's Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, and in 2003 she was selected for the Pinellas County Business Women's Hall of Fame. She's also been honored by the Florida Medical Association and the Alcohol and Drug Problems Association of North America.

Her organization has encountered some criticism as well. Recently a Pinellas PAR employee, Michael Albert, was arrested on charges of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman in Hillsborough County.

Coletti said the state system for employers to screen backgrounds of people looking for work in sensitive jobs needs improving.

"We need to come together for a solution for this," Coletti said. "It's a statewide problem and we need to address it and have a solution."

Today, Coletti's key roles with Operation PAR are securing donations and grants. She lives in Clearwater with her husband, William, 81, who served as St. Pete Beach mayor from 1964 to 1968 and as executive director of Pinellas County Medical Society for 25 years.

Coletti was one of about 190 women nominated for the Florida Women's Hall of Fame. The award was initiated in 1982 through the Florida Commission on the Status of Women, which accepts nominations from the public each year.

This year, a 10-member committee whittled the competition down to 10 finalists, and Gov. Jeb Bush selected his three picks. In March, Coletti will join former National Rifle Association president Marion P. Hammer and Kennedy Space Center engineer Judith Kersey at a ceremony at the Capitol.

Past inductees include Gloria Estefan, Chris Evert, Betty Castor and Janet Reno. Most women in the Hall of Fame are honored for their contributions to society, not their occupations, said the Hall of Fame committee chair Anita Mitchell.

Although she's received numerous awards, Coletti said this one holds a special place for her. "To be honored in your own state, your own back yard, means so much more than any national or international award."

While her daughter's situation wasn't as tragic as she thought it was all those years ago, Coletti's glad she had the guts to take action.

"The main thing is that people should not wait until it has become a problem," she said. "They need to get involved, get on top of the situation and start communicating with their children early."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at