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Info session on combating substance use turns into how to better engage public

An information session at Albemarle High Tuesday evening, to talk about combating underage substance use, turned into a planning session for officials within the school system, health department and first responders to try and figure out how to better reach and engage the community.

In a crowd of no more than 30 people, only five were students. The rest were mainly professionals who were either there to speak during the event or who already knew most of what was going to be said.

The school system advertised the event, Community Conversation, through social media and through phone messages to families, Stanly County Schools Director of Student Services Beverly Pennington said.

The goal is to have community conversations at each school attendance area in the county within the next year.

The conversations are one part of a program designed by the Center for Prevention Services, thanks to a $1.25 million Partnership for Success five-year grant, to combat the opioid crisis in the county. The grant will provide approximately $260,000 per year to fund new efforts in Stanly aimed at reducing substance abuse.

“I’ve seen this happen time and time and time and time again,” Will’s Place Executive Director Delton Russell said about the low turnout. He was scheduled to be one of six speakers at the event. He said he saw a similar lack of engagement around the seven-county region when he worked for Cardinal Innovations.

“We would plan these events and no one would show up,” Russell said.

He said most people don’t show up for events unless it personally relates to them and engages them.

“If it doesn’t directly pertain to us we don’t typically care,” Russell said, “but it does pertain to all of us. We just don’t understand how it pertains to us.”

He noted that if a banner hung around the county asking people if they were tired of ranking No. 1 in the state in opioid overdoses and wanted to see something done about it, it may get more people involved.

“I might be wrong, but I think there’s a fair opportunity for us to get some people engaged and get people involved,” he said.

Russell emphasized that different groups throughout the community should meet on a regular basis to talk about ways to help combat the opioid crisis.

Some of the ideas to better promote these conversations discussed included more of a emphasis on social media, scheduling the conversations on Facebook, sending students home with flyers and having the conversations set in individual neighborhoods as opposed to different regions of the county. Food was also mentioned as a way to entice people to come to events, along with getting the faith community more involved and hosting some of the conversations at places of worship.

Center for Prevention Services Youth Coordinator Kaitlin Smith has met with students at West Stanly High School to talk about the signs and symptoms of substance abuse. The goal is for her to meet students at each of the high schools in the county.

Community Paramedic Ashley Hernandez said the monthly reports published by the state that rank Stanly No. 1 in opioid overdoses showing up in hospital emergency rooms do not reflect what is happening in the county.

The reports “only reflect who decides to go to that ER, which nine out 10 of our patients do not go,” Hernandez said.

From May through October of this year, the community paramedics had 187 overdose calls, 166 of which were opioid-only. Only 85 of those 187 calls were transported to the emergency room.

Though only 11 opioid overdoses were reported in the monthly reports (which landed Stanly to No. 1 again out of all 100 counties in N.C.), Hernandez said the EMS count is actually closer to 30.

“It’s exponentially worse,” she said.

Hernandez said where previously it would take one dose of Narcan to wake someone from an overdose, it has now taken multiple doses because the drugs have gotten stronger and are being mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

“It’s getting a lot harder to save these people,” Hernandez said.

Russell said when people in addiction are dying mixed with older citizens continuing to retire, it will leave a gaping hole in the county’s workforce.

“If we don’t do something about this now, in 20 years from now it’s going to devastate this community because who’s going to fill these jobs?” he said.

Many in the room left feeling hopeful about the future and about finding ways to better engage the public.

“I’m just encouraged by those that are here this evening and the direction we’re going,” Pennington said. “We’re going to keep working on getting the community conversation up and running and we’ll get it right.”

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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