By Jeff Harrison
Noble Local School District
Noble County CARES.
While it seems like a rather simple statement, it’s definitely the case when it comes to the health and well-being of the county residents.
With the knowledge that the opioid epidemic wasn’t just someone else’s problem and that it – along with other drug addictions, vaping and more – was becoming prevalent right in our backyard, members of the local community including the Noble County Health Department, various county-wide agencies and both county schools (Noble Local and Caldwell) formed a coalition to address these issues.
The coalition – which became known as Noble County CARES (Community Access Resources Educational Services), got its start in December of 2016 with more than 40 local community and service professionals attending.
“In one of the meetings of the Family and Children First Council which includes the school superintendents and a lot of the social service agencies, we recognized the growing drug problem,” said Noble County Health Commissioner Shawn Ray, “and thought we needed to bring a broader group from the community in to brainstorm about it.
“(Noble Local Superintendent) Dan Leffingwell was really helpful because there was a student who died in Belpre and their school system had some special events to bring awareness, so he hooked me up with a contact there. We had a kickoff meeting with a poignant presentation from the school principal and it really hit home when we realized what all was going on in the community, so we agreed to keep meeting and discuss strategic planning to address the problems.”
“I’m the Health Commissioner and I grew up here in Noble County,” Ray added, “but I’m certainly not a drug expert so having so many people with different backgrounds share ideas is invaluable.”
Leffingwell echoed Ray’s sentiments about the group.
“I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the origin of Noble County CARES,” said Leffingwell. “It really serves a variety of purposes, but none greater than it was the first time ever a group of county agencies came together to talk about what they had available to help families and individuals who are struggling with various addictions.
“The second thing is the fact that it’s linking and creating hope, access and opportunities for individuals in our community,” he continued.
In addition to selecting a name and creating a logo which reflects hands laid over one-another as a gesture of help and hope, the group identified its goals of both help and prevention – teaching families and individuals about drugs and their effects, both physically and emotionally.
The local group has been on the cutting edge as far as achieving these goals, according to Ray.
“We’re a small community, but we’ve got a very active CARES community,” he said. “The Appalachian Regional Commission (federal agency) has recently come out with a report on how rural communities can help address the drug problem and its seems like everything they’re recommending now we pretty much got to those same steps on our own, so it’s reassuring that we’ve checkmarked just about everything they talked about in their report.”
In addition to the Health Department and the schools, others actively involved are The Ohio State University Extension, Noble Behavioral Health Choices, Allwell Behavioral Health Services, the Crisis Text Line, Genesis Healthcare Drug Recovery, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Noble County, the Noble County Board of Developmental Disabilities, the Noble County Sheriff’s Office and several of the community’s church pastors.
Every part of Noble County is dealing with consequences of drug use.
“This past year, we focused on what the community can do to help people that are actually in recovery,” said Ray. “We’ve had some nice discussions around that, some of the churches have set up a network to provide assistance..
“We’re still addressing the items we started with,” he added, “but we’ve put more focus on recovery because we’ve had some people who have been successful with it.
A large emphasis was placed around educating the county’s youth, with an education sub-committee formed that involved individuals from both school districts to implement a K-12 drug prevention curriculum.
“At first, there were two early initiatives we wanted to address,” said Ray. “One was to build awareness of what the problem was and take the stigma away and let people know where they can get help.
“The other part was everyone felt this was a long-term problem,” he continued, “and the only way we were really going to get ahold of it was through educating our young people so we began to focus in the schools.
“That initiative is still a very big priority,” Ray added, “and now we have an education sub-committee that meets at different times. That’s great for the community beyond the drug crisis because we have both school districts coming together talking about a comprehensive K-12 curriculum around drug abuse and prevention as well as other areas like tobacco and vaping.
“There are root causes of why people are using drugs such as mental health, addiction and social problems at home,” said Ray, “and to me, the education sub-committee is a fantastic part of this and builds bridges for other things beyond this.
“Even when we started, I don’t think the drug problem was in the schools to a great extent yet,” said Ray, “and even today, the larger drug-using community tends to be in the mid-20s up to the 40s age range, so fortunately we’ve kept the majority of the drug problem out of the high schools but that doesn’t mean the schools aren’t dealing with it as well.”
Marica Murphy, the School Improvement Coordinator at Noble Local, offered thoughts on the purpose of the education sub-committee.
“We want to make sure we’re educating kids across all grades PK-12th,” said Murphy. “We try to prevent addiction by teaching not only the kids, but their family members too, through both in school and community events. “We have a social/emotional curriculum that is taught by Noble Local staff and community educators from outside the district. These include: OSU Extension, Noble County Health Department, and County Behavioral Health Agencies. “We want to make sure students are armed with the tools necessary to understand and manage their emotions, as well as, make wise and informed decisions,” she added.
Getting the entire community involved is key, according to Murphy.
“The Health Department was the true initiator and they facilitated bringing everyone together,” she said. “It’s going to take a village to combat this issue and we’re looking at it from all spectrums from education, social and emotional health and physical health.
“We try to identify and provide education for any major concerns young adults are faced with through the curriculum we teach,” Murphy added. “It’s not just dealing with drugs…it’s about current health obstacles and good decision-making… it’s about targeting the whole child, not just academics.”
Recent statistics showing an increase in drug use of those ages 19-23, a factor the sub-committee is well aware of.
“We believe we need to amp up education at the high school even more than what we’re doing,” said Murphy. “This committee will continue to identify the issues that are impacting our students and how we as community agencies and organizations can help reinforce what the schools are doing.”
Shenandoah High School Principal Justin Denius – another active member of the education sub-committee – sees Noble County CARES as having a significant role in the schools.
“The main thing I see is if we can educate you early and prevent the problem whether it’s prescription pills, opioids, meth or whatever,” said Denius. “People don’t always know where they can get this type of help in the county, so we’re trying to educate the public where it is available.”
Denius says opioids and other drugs aren’t currently the primary issue confronting SHS.
“Vaping has become the biggest problem right now,” he said. “Overall tobacco and smoking has decreased, but vaping is the ‘in’ thing we have to educate them about right now.”
Denius says he hopes to do a joint presentation with Shenandoah and Caldwell students speaking on how bad the problem really is among their peers.
“A couple years ago, we lost a student (from SHS) and having the CARES group at our disposal to help us get through that was nice to have those people on speed dial,” he stated. “It’s a good organization to be a part of and I truly feel it’s having a positive impact on the entire community.”
Denius recently made a proposal to develop a program that ties in with the school’s Business Advisory Council and its desire to identify drug-free employees.
“If you as a senior, you would voluntarily test three times and if you were drug free each time, your diploma would be stamped ‘Drug Free, Hire Me’ which is something the business advisory committee is asking for,” he said, referring to the need for a drug free workforce. “We could do something like bring a band into the courthouse lawn and have pizza for the kids who received the stamp and also have folks on the BAC there to show them here are the Noble Local and Caldwell seniors who are drug free and will graduate on time that are available for work.”
Another individual playing a big part in the CARES coalition is Nancy Snook from The Ohio State University Extension Office.
“OSU Extension has been a part of the CARES coalition from the very beginning and also a part of the education sub-committee,” said Snook. “Through that, we identify needs within the school districts for education around the opioid epidemic and healthy lifestyles in general and we provide educational programming in the schools.
“With kindergarten through fifth grade we have the HOPE (Healthy Opioids Prevention Education) and Generation Rx programs, and this year we added the health effects of tobacco use and vaping.
“We also worked with the two high schools to reestablish the S.A.D.D. (Students Against Destructive Decisions) chapters,” she continued. “The last three years in October we’ve done “Red Ribbon Week’ activities which are driven by the S.A.D.D chapters where the high school students come to the elementaries and lead activities there.
“We’ll also be having the ‘Prom Pledge’ for a third year,” she added, referring to the program where students sign a document stating they won’t use alcohol or drugs on Prom Night or text while driving. “The first year we did an assembly program and last year a mock crash, and this year we’ll be doing mock funerals.”
The Prom Pledge activities will be in advance of the proms at Shenandoah and Caldwell, both scheduled on Saturday, April 25th.
“One of the most eye-opening things this year when we added tobacco use and vaping sessions,” said Snook. “The kids realized that vaping really is not a safe alternative to smoking and what the long-term health effects are from vaping.”
Superintendent Leffingwell is pleased with the involvement not only of those at Noble Local, but countless others who are heavily involved.
“I’m proud of everybody in the county,” he added. “I’m proud of our staff and the employees who step up beyond their job assignment and try to take a role in community service.”
In addition to Murphy and Denius, Leffingwell singled out the school’s “tech guru” – Philip Theobald – for helping the coalition establish a functional website that serves a “one-stop shop” for support.
“As our region has gone through the opioid crisis and addiction crisis,” he offered, “it’s synonymous with economic development or lack thereof and jobs or lack thereof, but the common denominator is creating hope. People might be less likely to turn to addiction if they believe there’s hope that their future may be brighter than their today and they have the power to make it so.
“If you do stumble,” he continued, “we want you to realize that Noble CARES and there’s a group of folks working collaboratively to help support you in your recovery. When you’re talking about addiction, you’re talking about prevention or treatment so the educational component having a consistent program all the way from K through 12 is critical and having all of those agencies come together helps with that.
“It may be years down the road before we can fully measure the potential impact, but I’m optimistic,” Leffingwell acknowledged. “We have students who are coming to us with ideas and when you see that, you have to feel that it’s having some type of impact.”
The Noble County CARES coalition meets the third Thursday of every month at the Health Department.
“The best thing that has come out of it is the whole community has come together and we’re all working toward a common goal,” said Ray.
That’s because Noble County truly CARES.
(For more information on the Noble County CARES program and the many available services, go to www.noblecountycares.org or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org)