Fulton County, Pennsylvania lies in a lush valley surrounded by hills and picture perfect hollows. While a large county geographically speaking, 438 square miles, the population is only a little under 15,000. For many, it is a slice of heaven. For others, a living hell. You see, a 2016 University of Pittsburgh study showed that Fulton County has the highest overdose death rate of any county in the state of Pennsylvania.
The opioid crisis is a plague and looking close one uncovers a myriad of factors devastating our families and communities.
A Community Heals
Although initiated because of tragedy, it was a great honor to help this community heal by working with a task force created to combat this horror, Project SAAFE. The plan was to spend a day with the Chamber of Commerce, an addiction recovery art group, and then a community town hall to help kick off an initiative to engage the pillars of the community in the lives of those suffering.
Battling addiction is more than just finding the right treatment program or hoping for some magic pill. It requires a holistic response. In order to stay clean, one must rebuild their life and discover the kind of meaning and purpose that drives us to move forward amidst struggles. Planning for the event, I recalled a group I led with young women battling heroin addiction. A young lady, about 20, spoke of her heart breaking journey. She had been abused since 3 or 4, her family was completely broken and separated, all her friends used drugs, she was poor, and had been kicked out of High School before graduating. She ached for hope and a future, but the reality of her situation was sobering.
“The problem is, my life has been a wreck since I started being abused when I was little. I’m happier when I’m high. I can escape. And honestly, I think I’d rather die getting high than live with nothing to be happy about.”
Truth there folks. We tell a young woman traumatized in the worst ways, “hang in there honey, it’ll get better, don’t do drugs.” For all practical purposes we walk away. Then we point fingers when we should be looking in the mirror. When was the last time you engaged “the least of these” and responded to their needs in a one-on-one personal way? And then did it consistently.
We must look in the mirror
Fulton County was able to look in the mirror. We started that day with the Chamber of Commerce. It was a packed house at lunch to hear my talk and begin the discussion on how the business community could better respond to this epidemic. The message was simple, you must give them an alternative. You must invest in your community by taking a chance on the most vulnerable. True living is the only alternative to the temporal escapes that keep people laboring with their demons. Living begins with housing and employment. We need more individuals and businesses willing to take a chance on people and make that crucial investment in the human spirit.
The talk was well received and multiple businesses on the spot agreed to do more to hire those in recovery.
After the Chamber of Commerce event, I spoke to a group of recovering addicts who use art as a means to heal. What a great tool. When we see that something good can be created using the pain of our brokenness, it reveals the hope we all desire to live by. We want our lives to matter and hopefully leave a legacy of something bigger than ourselves. In their art, you can see through the scarred faces of damaged lives and see people wanting to take the necessary steps to heal and create something new and good.
Building community synergy
Finally, in the evening I spoke at the local United Methodist Church for a live-streamed town hall. This was intended to create synergy in the community and reinforce the need for a holistic response. We must help people change their lives, not just give them a few tools and a pat on the back. That doesn’t work. It takes a committed community to help someone who has faced continual life trauma rebuild their lives economically, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Broken communities, separated families, and poor relationships create an environment where the broken don’t have a landing pad of social support. As many studies have shown, nothing puts a human being at higher risk than poor social support.
The true plague of our world today? Not drugs. That is a symptom. No, it’s the breaking apart of our social fabric, an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. In the dark, the demons come and despair grows. What will you do?
Join us and make a stand in your community. We must rebuild the relationships and communities that have eroded and left us with a devastation that is only getting worse.