The Prevention Council of the Roanoke Valley extended “a huge thank you to William Byrd High School, the Roanoke County Schools, the Roanoke Valley Opioid and Heroin Prevention Task Force, and most of all the Vinton community for having the ‘Courage to Care’ about the heroin/opioid epidemic and wanting to save lives.”
Over 500 people attended the event at William Byrd in a series of community conversations held at each of the county high schools on the growing drug problem involving heroin, fentanyl, and opioids. Byrd had the highest attendance by far of any of the county high schools.
According to the Prevention Council, in just 10 days the partnership among these organizations reached nearly 2,000 adults and youth with the message that “prevention and education can stop this monster and change the face of addiction.”
“It was fantastic to see so many people in the Vinton community come together to discuss this important issue,” said Vinton Police Chief Tom Foster. “It is through discussions like these that innovative strategies to combat this problem are developed.”
School Board Chairman Tim Greenway said, “What we are finding is we, as a society, have a fast-growing problem. The boy or girl next door is getting hooked on pain meds (opioids) and this seems to transfer to heroin, because it is so much cheaper and easy to get.
“The meeting last Thursday was a real-life look into the lives affected by this addiction,” continued Greenway. “It’s not the stereotypical person we think of when we think of addictions. It’s boys and girls of all ages, all religions, and all races. Education is our frontline defense to show people the signs of addiction and how we can help those needing intervention. Thursday night was a wonderfully attended community event to start the process of education.
“If we helped one person with this meeting, I would be overjoyed,” Greenway added. “We have to begin the process of educating parents, students, teachers, and administrators. This was that first step. We are now going to provide this same program to the high school students during the day while they are at school. I’m hoping we can bring it to the middle school level as well.”
Greenway welcomed and thanked those who attended. WBHS Principal Tammy Newcomb had gone so far as to offer extra credit to students who participated to spread awareness about what is becoming an increasing problem in the Roanoke Valley and across the nation.
U.S. Magistrate of the Western Virginia Division Mike Urbanski called drug addiction a “powerful disease, not a moral failing,” which changes the brain chemistry in still developing teens. Society wants a “quick fix” for pain, stress, and depression and turns to opioids. He believes that education can help individuals seek alternatives to drugs to cope with life stressors.
Urbanksi told the crowd that most of the cases he deals with on the Southwest Virginia docket involve drugs.
Studies show that the current heroin/opioid problem has its roots in the over-prescribing of painkillers that escalated in the 1990s.
Special Agent Joe Crowder from the Virginia State Police and the Heroin/Opioid Task Force presented the current statistics on drug use, especially heroin and opioids specific to the Roanoke Valley.
He said that heroin is in the news more frequently than in the past because opioids are expensive and often young people turn to heroin which nowadays is cheaper, of higher purity, and easy to obtain. Virginia’s overdose deaths for 2016 are expected to surpass 1,000.
Parents were warned to pay attention early on to their children’s friends and activities and to be aware of the signs of drug involvement and abuse.
Personal stories from Monique Fisher, who lost her son three years ago to a heroin overdose, and Josh Delano, a 2006 Salem High School graduate, who is a recovering addict, now clean for three years, were powerful, riveting, and heart-wrenching.
Fisher, a registered nurse, lost her son, Shell Channing Fisher, to a heroin laced with fentanyl overdose in March 2014 after years of struggle with addiction. She once had three children; now she has two. She advised that addiction is difficult to overcome— prevention is the key. Shell’s problems with drugs began initially with multiple narcotic prescriptions for pain relief from sports injuries.
“Seeing him high became the norm and was often difficult to detect because we never saw him any other way,” said Fisher in a program entitled “Saving Shell: A Parent’s Journey,” the family has created and made available on Facebook. “He had never learned how to manage stress. The only coping mechanism familiar to him was to temporarily remove his mind from the situation with drugs.”
Delano turned to drugs as a remedy for low self-esteem, starting with “pills and weed” before becoming addicted to heroin. Although he came from a loving family, he never felt that he “fit in or was good enough.”
Taisha Steele, Coordinator of School Counseling for Roanoke County Schools, Nancy Hans, Executive Director of the Prevention Council of Roanoke County, and Otis Dowdy from the Families Anonymous support group spoke as well. They highlighted for parents and students the school and community resources available to address the problems of drug use, and especially the prevention of those problems.
One resource available at William Byrd is the Student Assistance Program in the school’s guidance department, led by S.A.P. Coordinator Joe Scott
“On November 21, 2016, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that the Virginia opioid addiction crisis had been declared a Public Health Emergency,” said Steele.
“Opioid and heroin addiction is a community problem that requires a community solution,” said Hans. “A decade ago, we didn’t know how dangerous opioid addiction could be and the connections between opioids and heroin. Now we know, and now we can help our parents and youth understand the dangers and make better choices.”
One step individuals can take is to dispose of prescription drugs safely during Drug Take Back Days in local communities. The next one is scheduled for April 29. Expired or unused prescription drugs may also be left Monday through Friday at the Roanoke County Sheriff’s Office in Salem.