Law enforcement, counselors, area nonprofit leaders and others spoke during a town hall meeting Tuesday about the problems of substance abuse and underage drinking in Smith County, urging citizens to reach out and help.
Next Step Community Solutions, a nonprofit with a mission to build safe communities, sponsored the town hall meeting in Liberty Hall to facilitate the East Texas Substance Abuse Coalition to fight drug abuse, underage drinking, marijuana abuse and prescription drug abuse.
David Dickerson, coalition coordinator for Next Step Community Solutions, said its vision is to “educate and engage the community to understand and address the epidemic of drug abuse” and other problems.
“Increasing positive factors in people’s lives” leads to a drop in statistics, he said, asserting an impact can be made by citizens at the individual level, family level, community level and in society as a whole.
He cited as an example that smoking has gone from being “an acceptable thing 40 or 50 years ago” to today when the “attitude toward smoking has shifted” to the point that there are ordinances against smoking in bars and restaurants.
Involvement includes a collaboration of churches, schools, community organizations and workplaces, he said. The coalition, Dickerson said, is a network of concerned individuals and agencies, all invested in finding ways to address problems of underage drinking, marijuana use and prescription drug abuse in the community.
The coalition wants to look at how everyone can work together to be more effective, Dickerson said.
Eric Whitaker, patrol field training officer for Smith County Sheriff’s Office, said, “I’ve seen just about every type of substance abuse that there is.” He added that he has encountered different types of people from different types of society, from every race and ethnicity affected by the problem.
Drug abuse, he said, involves marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy, pcp, alcohol, prescription medications and new synthetic drugs, such as synthetic marijuana on the street and in the market. People affected lose everything, including their family, their home and their vehicle, Whitaker said.
“It is a very serious problem that we in the community need to be aware of (so that) we can step up and help change,” he said.
“Kids do not realize what these substances do to them,” Whitaker said, showing pictures of people whose appearance has been adversely affected by drug use.
People can make a difference working together and talking with drug abusers and helping get young people going the right way, he said.
Patrick Johnson, who works with three nonprofit agencies, said that teachers reported the biggest problem with students in the 1940s and 1950s was talking out of turn and today it’s drug abuse. A past problem was making noise while today it’s pregnancy, and another past problem was running in the hall while today it’s suicide, he said.
Another past problem was cutting in line whereas today it’s rape, while in the past another problem was littering while today it’s assault, Johnson said.
Johnson gave his personal testimony of his experiences from an abusive father and looking up to an older brother who used drugs. Johnson said he drank and used drugs but reached the point where, he said, “I refused to let drugs ruin my life.”
Now he works with youngsters, saying, “I would rather try and fail than fail to try.”
James McGraw, community resource officer for the Tyler Police Department, described working with fifth-graders during Red Ribbon Week to fight alcohol and drug abuse and also working with high school students.
McGraw said he tries to point out to them at an early age the effects. As one approach, he shows them pictures of fatal wrecks caused by drunk drivers and shows them the effects alcohol can have on a person’s lungs, teeth and body in general.
Police work with people abusing cocaine, methamphetamine, pcp, heroin, LSD and other drugs and medication abuse, McGraw said.
“You never know when you might make a difference in a young person’s life by talking to them about the problems of drug abuse and drinking,” McGraw said.
Stella Malone, executive director of Steal, Kill and Destroy, a faith-based agency that works with young people having problems with drug and alcohol abuse, said it starts as something to do to have fun. She told her own story of using drugs and being helped.
Her agency has meetings on Thursdays to provide young people a safe place where they can “get real” about how they feel, and encourages them in a positive direction in hopes they will not end up a statistic, Ms. Malone said.
Ms. Malone said she wants to turn the building where the Thursday night meetings are held into a youth center with volunteers on duty where there will be events, movie nights, game night, after-school programs and other events for young people.
“If we speak up about this topic (drug and alcohol abuse) in the community and speak out about what’s going on, then we may be able to make a difference,” Ms. Malone said.
She said people should go to the places where young people are and be the light for them and raise awareness of what Jesus does for those suffering with alcohol and abuse and depression.