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Reynolds High Students Tackle The Opioid Epidemic

President Trump this week renewed his pledge to battle the country’s opioid epidemic. Trump spoke at a national drug abuse conference in Atlanta.  Here in Western North Carolina, students are working to raise awareness about the epidemic. BPR’s Helen Chickering reports from  A.C. Reynolds High School, where students organized an opioid education summit. 

The music was blaring as students filed into the auditorium at  A.C. Reynolds High School.  As the crowd quieted, Junior Devon Triplett grabbed a microphone and launched into his well- rehearsed opening message.  

“This is a way too common occurrence, “Triplett told the crowd, “Addiction is an occurrence based on chemical makeup of the brain and can happen to anyone.”

Triplett is a member of the schools newly formed opioid youth leadership council, a group of students who’ve signed up to help address and tackle drug use and addiction at school.

“We want people to know that this isn’t just something that is going on in Ohio, this is happening in Buncombe County, in our backyard.

The council and today’s event came out of Buncombe County’s annual summit on drug use and addiction, says school counselor and mentor Laura McCreary.

“And our students left that summit inspired and energized by the speakers they saw there and the information they received and they were tasked by our superintendent to bring it back to their peers here at Reynolds.”

And today’s program is team Reynold’s premier event.  The theme – breaking stigma around addiction - really hits home for Devon Triplett.

“There’s kind of this stigmas that exists in all people for the most part, you know that addicts are bad people,  that they are just bad people that keep stealing and why should we help them,” says Triplett, “ So last year at the opioid summit,  I was eye-opened that stigma did exist in me.  However, as we’ve been working over the past year to put this event together, I believe I’ve been cured of that stigma so.  Now, I’m really able to help other people understand and hopefully impact all the students at this school and hopefully impact the students at this school and get rid of all the stigma we have toward our addicts because in my opinion, that’s the only way we’re going to break this crisis. We can build awareness all we want – but if we don’t alleviate the stigma – these addicts are really never going to go and seek treatment that’s what we’re doing today. “

Leadership council member Lillian Morris agrees, "I’m doing my senior paper on substance abuse in teens," says Morris, who introduced the programs keynote speaker Kallup McCoy, a former high school star athlete from Swain County who is now in recovery.

“I stand here today telling the hard truth in hopes you choose never to use drugs, but if you are already using, that you have the courage to reach out, " McCoy told students, "You can change the course of this epidemic by giving it a voice."

Students also got a dose of stigma busting science from Bob Cummings a substance abuse prevention consultant.

“The goal to get across now,” said Cummings, “ Is the basis of addiction, the old science said was a lack of willpower a lack of the ability to handle stress, the new science now  says that anybody  who is using mood altering chemicals can become addicted, due to the changing and the reversing of dopamine receptor sites, neurotransmitters, etc. It alters chemical structure and function of the brain. It’s not bad people it’s not bad people – it’s anybody now.”

Buncombe County has some of the state’s highest overdose rates, Buncombe county paramedic and training officer  Jamie Judd shared some of those grim statistics, but also expressed hope.  Judd saysevents like this one will make a difference.

“Student led initiative sets an example for the county and the rest of the state. You can see the things that can be done inside of a school, when you get good strong leaders who want to step up and want to take that lead  and get that message out there.”

Reynolds High counselor and mentor Laura McCreary agrees and says today, was just the beginning

“I’m proud of our leadership and our hope is that eventually our maps we saw today with the overdoses in Buncombe County, there will be far fewer dots on that map.”

The students are already working on a follow -up plans to keep the momentum  going in the hallways and classrooms, hallways and at home, hoping to break the cycle of addiction by breaking down the stigma – one conversation at a time.  I’m Helen Chickering

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.