For Debbie Dingell and others speaking to Taylor teens, opioid abuse is personal
Her father was a prescription drug addict. Her sister died of a drug overdose. These are experiences U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell shared with hundreds of Taylor high school students Thursday morning during an assembly in which she tried to help them understand the dangers of opioid abuse - even urging them to look up her phone number and call her if they need help and have no one to turn to.
"I want you to have a long, fun, great, healthy life," Dingell said. "I don't want you to be Mary Grace," she said, referring to her younger sister who she said became addicted to prescription drugs at the age of 9 or 10.
"Nobody understood what it was, and for the next 30 years we tried to help her fight a drug addiction that was a nightmare. There was nothing that we didn't do and believe me, there were some very desperate moments."
Dingell, D-Dearborn, and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., were at Truman High School in the Taylor School District to hold an assembly with 500 freshman. The goal? Help raise awareness about opioid abuse. The two representatives are members of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force in Congress.
The event featured law enforcement, lawmakers, substance abuse counselors and local judges. They also heard from Shelby Chaltry, a former heroin addict who urged students to make better choices with their lives than she did.
Among the judges was Geno Salomone, chief judge of the 23rd District Court in Taylor, who moderated the event. He told the crowd that last year in the U.S., 66,000 people died of overdose - many of them OD'ing on prescription drugs.
"The opioid epidemic has wreaked havoc on our country," Kennedy said. "This is an epidemic ... that knows no boundaries across the nation. Young or old. Black or white. Rich or poor. Urban or rural. It affects countless."
Simone Calvas, a substance abuse prevention counselor and a community organizer for the Taylor Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force, told students that in 2016, more than 73,000 opioid drugs were prescribed to Taylor residents. She also told them of an Oct. 28 event designed to urge people to turn in their old prescription drugs.
"If we can save one life ... we're winning," Calvas said.
The discussion resonated with students like Cindy Sarpomaa-Nyarko, 17, a senior at Truman High. She said she doesn't know anyone who's abused drugs, nor did she know much about opioid abuse, "so this issue can feel a little foreign to me."
"My eyes are really opened up," she said. And it's not just because of what they learned, but who they learned it from.
"I think what I learned the most was just how involved our representatives truly are, in terms of this epidemic," Sarpomaa-Nyarko said. "When they come here and make a personal appearance, you really get to see their impact on our community."
Dingell said her sister began using the prescription drugs of her father, who himself was an addict. She recalled days when her father's behavior got out of control and she and her three siblings would rely on each other.
"We were afraid that something might happen, so we would hide in a closet," Dingell said.
Hers wasn't the only personal story told at the assembly. The students also heard from Chaltry, a 26-year-old who is a recovering heroin addict. It's a difficult story to share, Chaltry said after the event, but she said, "If I can just reach one person," it was worth it.
She told students she began drinking alcohol and smoking pot in middle school, then graduated to taking drugs like OxyContin and Adderall in high school.
"Those drugs were everywhere," she said. "It wasn't long before I was using them all the time."
Her drug use escalated to heroin. She recounted how she dropped out of community college and "abandoned my child with my family," so she could keep using. At one point, she said, she sold drugs to her friends so she could afford them herself.
She described wanting to commit suicide so she could "stop hurting myself."
The turning point came when she was arrested for possession of drugs. A judge gave her an option: Go to jail or go through a drug court program. She chose the latter.
"I'm glad I did ... I had a second chance at life," she said.
It's a second chance she said other, including people she knows don't get. They died.
Still, she lives with the realities of the people she hurt, the crimes she committed while using drugs, and the opportunities she let slip away.
"Make life easier on yourself," she urged the students. "Make better choices."
Afterward, Chaltry - who is still in the District Court Regional Drug/SobrietyTreatment Program - said her own experiences getting clean have led her to train to become a peer recovery coach.
"When I first got clean, the biggest change for me happened in therapy," she said.
Meanwhile, one student in the crowd asked the lawmakers what to do in situations when someone needs prescription medication. Dingell, again, got personal. She said her husband, former Congressman John Dingell, needs pain pills to deal with chronic pain. She said she works closely with her husband's pain doctor, who is the only person allowed to prescribe the medication.
"We have to make sure people with legitimate pain get the help they need," she said.
The students heard from the chief of the Taylor Police Department, who made a promise to them: If you or a loved one is in trouble, come to the police station.
"We will not put you in handcuffs," said Chief John Blair. "We will not haul you away to jail ... Our simple belief is this - I need to provide you with hope, not handcuffs."
Kennedy said the solution for dealing with the crisis isn't going to come from Washington, D.C., but instead from high schools like Truman High. He told them about a school in Ohio he visited recently that created a drug-free club. Students must take a drug test and submit to random drug testing throughout the year to join the club. In exchange, they receive a photo ID that gets them discounts at participating local businesses.
"They get discounts on food, on clothing, on services," Kennedy said. "That club quickly became the most popular club in the entire school."