NEW PARIS — Over 200 people attended the Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership’s town hall meeting on the heroin epidemic in Preble County, hosted at National Trail School on Wednesday, Jan. 27.
It was the largest turnout yet, according to members of the Wayne County Task Force who helped lead the meeting and have done several other similar events in Preble County and Wayne County, Indiana over the past several months.
The message at the meeting was no doubt a powerful, eye-opening one for those who attended, but there was also a very clear message of hope and positivity.
The message of hope hit very close to home for at least one person who attended, who said she came to the meeting to seek help for her own son’s addiction to heroin.
“This was fantastic, I hope they bring one to Eaton,” Jennifer Ward said. Ward herself has been impacted by the heroin epidemic through her son’s addiction, like many other families in the area.
For Ward, the personal testimonies showed her to “never give up on them.”
“I think these officers did a very good job with the personal testimonies — the woman who lost her son is heartbreaking and for parents with kids coming up now look for the signs, signs I didn’t see,” Ward said after the meeting.
Ward was far from the only person to leave with a sense of hope, as one former heroin user who was in attendance told Preble County Sheriff Mike Simpson local law enforcement’s efforts are paying off locally.
The former user told Simpson the amount of drugs she sees and is exposed to in Preble County since returning from her time in rehab is well below the amount she was experiencing while using the drug some 8 months ago. She told Simpson his department is a large reason for that.
That former user also asked how she could become involved in preventative and awareness programs like the one hosted at National Trail.
Perhaps the greatest sense of hope came from Tracy Wheeler, who runs the county’s “We are the Majority” program. The program is a collection of local teens and high school students who say they are not using drugs or alcohol, as is the case for most young people.
Wheeler said the program is designed to highlight the fact that most young people do not use drugs or alcohol.
Mixed with the messages of hope and positivity, however, was the cold reality that is the heroin epidemic and its effects on those who use the drug.
Personal testimonies came from people like Zach Tibbot, a former heroin user, and his mother Tracie Upchurch, who shared their own story of addiction and the impact of addiction on their family.
Together they showed the reality many users face on a daily basis and displayed how heroin addiction is not confined to a certain race, age, gender or economic status.
“It is across the board,” Upchurch told those in attendance.” “There is no rhyme nor reason to what family it is going to touch.”
One man, referred to simply as Walter — a self-proclaimed alcoholic and addict who said he has been sober for 9 years — shared the story of “hitting rock bottom” in prison during the birth of his now 9-year-old daughter.
Walter said he believed he would never have the chance to be a father to his daughter, and decided to change his life for his family.
Walter, whose daughter was in attendance with him at the program, said he owes his new life to the New Paris community, “The day I got out of prison I came to this community, and you took me in,” he said.
Walter continued, “The places and people we have in this community taught me to stay sober, how to change my life and make a heck of a lot better choices. They taught me how to be a father to that little girl.”
Debbie Reynolds, founder of STOMP Addiction and Logan’s Run, shared the story of her son, whose story is often introduced as “from prom king to heroin addict.”
Reynolds has been a strong local voice in advocating for drug use and addiction awareness, after her son lost his battle to heroin in July of 2014.
One common theme from the personal testimonies was the abuse of prescription pills. Reynolds said 80 percent of all heroin users start with the use of prescription pills.
Both Reynolds’ son Logan, and Tibbot became addicted to heroin after being prescribed opiate-based prescription drugs for injuries they suffered from sports or automobile accidents.
Members of the Wayne County Task Force and the Preble County Sheriff’s Office also provided important local facts and statistics during the meeting.
According to law enforcement officials, heroin began showing up locally around 2007 and quickly became even with crack cocaine in terms of the users.
Detective Pat Tudor said it didn’t long for heroin to quickly over take crack cocaine as the number one drug locally.
“In 18 years I’ve never seen it this bad,” Tudor said.
According to officials at the meeting, in the past year, 54 babies have been born in Wayne County addicted to heroin.
Officials also said Wayne County has issued 335 doses of Narcan over the past year. Narcan a drug used to prevent deaths due to heroin overdose.
According to the officials in attendance, in the month of January five people died from heroin overdoses.
That number of overdoses means Wayne County is currently experiencing the most overdose deaths per capita in the state of Indiana.
One official said “withdrawal is like the flu times 1,000” and noted more people die from overdose the first time using the drug than are successfully able to walk away from the drug.
Officials said most of the heroin comes from Mexico and Afghanistan, and reaches the area typically through Chicago to Dayton where it is then sold for personal use locally.
Heroin is most commonly injected, but can also be smoked or snorted, according to officials.
It is also being seen in increasing numbers in capsule form, like gel-cap medical pills, according to officials.
According to members of the Preble County Sheriff’s Office, heroin, along with methamphetamines and abuse of prescription pills remains common in Preble County.
Heroin arrests have more than doubled in Preble County since 2012, having overtaken meth, meth labs and prescription pill arrests, according to official reports.
For families dealing with addiction, officials encourage parents to remember they are not professionals and should seek out professional help.
Upchurch told those in attendance, “When something is wrong with your kid you know it.”
Several others encouraged parents not to be “buddy-buddy” with your kids and encouraged tough love if needed.
Perhaps the most important message was the coming together of the community to fight the battle of heroin addiction.
“We will continue the fight,” Sheriff Simpson said, “But we need your help.”
Drug tips can be provided locally at the Eaton Police Department, 937-456-5531, or at the Preble County Sheriff’s Office at 937-456-6262 — or online at the Preble County Sheriff’s Office website.
Prior to the meeting, the National Trail Junior High and High School students had an hour-long assembly featuring the Wayne County Task Force and the stories of Tibbot and Upchurch.
Students in grades 7-12 heard the personal testimonies in a similar type of program.
After the program, students returned to their classrooms for a more personal discussion with teachers.
Reach Austin Schmidt at 937-683-4062, or on Twitter @aschmidt_RH.