Tuesday, 03 August 2021 21:55

Steve's Wings asks for Richmond County's support in curbing opioid epidemic

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Amanda Kempen, a recovered alcoholic and vice chair of Steve's Wings, speaks to the Richmond County Board of Commissioners Aug. 3 about the group's mission in helping curb the opioid epidemic. Amanda Kempen, a recovered alcoholic and vice chair of Steve's Wings, speaks to the Richmond County Board of Commissioners Aug. 3 about the group's mission in helping curb the opioid epidemic. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — Amanda Kempen is familiar with addiction — and recovery.


A former alcoholic and drug user, she is now a certified peer support specialist and has been clean for four years.

Kempen, vice chair of Steve’s Wings, and Ernie Walters spoke about the group's mission and upcoming rally during the public comment section of Tuesday’s meeting of the Richmond County Board of Commissioners.

Steve’s Wings was founded last year by Melissa Schoonover.

Because of her experience, Kempen said she knows “that there is hope and there is a chance that can be had at a new life.”

The rally will start at noon Aug. 14 at the old Richmond County Courthouse with a march around downtown, ending in the parking lot across from the judicial center, and will feature speakers who will share their experiences.

The purpose of the rally, in part, “is to bring awareness to the epidemic of overdose and the rates that continue to grow in Richmond County and surrounding counties and across the United States,” Kempen said.

“Many will gather to embrace those who have lost their battle, honor those who are still fighting, as well as to bring awareness to that rate that continues to rise,” Kempen said.

She told commissioners that overdoses nearly doubled in 2020 from the previous year — “and we are set to double that rate in 2021.

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Opioid Action Plan Data Dashboard, the number of opioid-related deaths in Richmond County spiked at 11 in 2015 at a rate of 24.2 — higher than the state average of 10.5. As of September of 2020, there had been eight for the year.

The Hamlet Police Department has responded to 45 suspected overdoses since July 20, 2019. Three ODs since April of 2020 have been fatal.

In Rockingham, police responded to at least 49 overdose calls in the first six months of this year. Six of those resulted in death.

The Richmond Observer is working to get statistics from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.

“Change can be made,” Kempen said, “but we need to change our language and how we see those in active addiction and how we treat them and the stigma that surrounds substance use disorders.”

In addition to raising awareness about addiction, Kempen said Steve’s Wings wants to be a “helping hand” for addicts to reach out to for help and connect them with resources available in and outside of the community.

“But also, we want to be there for the families, for the caregivers and those that are affected by the choices that their loved ones make while in active addiction,” she added. “And also to support those who have lost family members as a result of overdose or the lifestyle choices made in active addiction.”

Kempen said she left Richmond County, but the Lord brought her for an assignment: “to try to help others that are where I once was, but by the grace of Jesus, I’ve been given a new chance at life.”

“We need to look and see the individual, not the addiction,” she continued. 

Steve’s Wings is more than just a one-day rally, Kempen added.

“We’re going to be a foundation that is here for part of the community that is often left unheard and unhelped,” she said.

Kempen also challenged all residents of the county  — including the commissioners  — to stand with them whether or not they’ve been affected by addiction.

“Help lift up our community,” she pleaded. “Each life saved makes this community that much better than it already is … You might learn a little more about the families affected.”

Walters, who lives in Richmond County, is affiliated with the Safer Communities Ministry in Union County and works with addicts daily.

Ernie Walters of Steve's Wings encourages commissioners to explore the possibility of facility to help drug and alcohol addicts.

“I’m well familiar with this lifestyle, this section of our community and I’ve come to learn and to discover that they don’t always fit the stereotype that we tend to think of when we encounter someone with a chemical addiction,” Walters said. “No one sets out to become an addict … and it rains not only on them, but on their families.

“And to leave this lifestyle, unfortunately, is not as simple as convincing them that they need to,” he continued. “They need help with that.”

Walters said he’s been approached by addicts who are “sick and tired of that lifestyle.”

“Contrary to what most people think, they hate what they’re doing,” he said. “And when they realize there’s the potential for change … they’re ready to pursue that.”

Doing his part to help, Walters said he would get up in the early morning hours to take addicts to treatment centers in surrounding counties.

But due to the opioid epidemic — “which really flies under the radar, for the most part” — Walters said other counties have changed their policies to deny resources to non-residents.

He encouraged commissioners to explore the possibility of a facility to offer help to those who are ready for it. 

“We are in a bad way right now,” Walters said. “And I think we are the sort of people who … will find a way to do better for our children’s sake, our grandchildren’s sake. Let’s pass off to them a county that we’ve grown to love — a safe county. A county where you don’t have to worry about being in a parking lot after dark, where there shouldn't’ be certain neighborhoods that you have to avoid … Let’s be our best.

“I hope that you’ll see the worth in what we’re trying to do and where you see opportunity that you might explore how this county can really dig in our heels against this epidemic and how we can make it stop here.”

Commissioner Tavares Bostic commended Kempen on her sobriety.

“I’ve spent a lot of years in my career working with individuals who were chemically dependant, so I know that the journey from addiction to recovery can be one that is formidable for the ones who actually can make it … it can be tedious,” Bostic said. “I think for many of you who have taken that particular journey, you’re much stronger than most.”

Bostic also offered his help to the organization.

Following County Manager Bryan Land’s mention of a $200,000 substance abuse grant, Commissioner Rick Watkins suggested that some of that money be used to help Steve’s Wings and similar groups, if possible.

“I don’t know the parameters of the grant and what the limitations are with the funding,” Watkins said, ”... but if we could do anything to partner with groups like Steve’s Wings who are based in our community, who are doing good work every day and committed to making a positive difference for us, I would really like to see us do everything we can to support what they’re doing.”

Land said he would work with Human Services Director Robby Hall to see if there are any in-house opportunities for those groups.

Commissioner Andy Grooms said he sees in Steve Wings the old tales of the community coming together to help each other.

“I’ve had the opportunity to speak with them over the last few weeks (about) what they’re trying to accomplish … and it’s really a loving, family environment,” Grooms said. “They offer a few things that some of the organizations in the county don’t right now. They’re not sitting behind a desk, they don’t have a badge on, they’re out there in the streets … where this epidemic needs to be fought.

“And I hope, sincerely, that the members of this board, the county moving forward, can provide whatever resources we can and help them out, because I think this is a unique organization that can make a change,” Grooms continued. “We put so much on law enforcement and these rehab centers, but it’s not all about that. You can break the cycle in other ways and I think that’s what this group is trying to do.

Like Kempen, Grooms challenged everyone in the room and the community to attend the rally.

“Please get involved with this, because that’s the only way anything’s going to change.”

 (This story edited at 11:21 p.m.)

(Sentence removed about support group. 8-4-21 1:54 p.m.)

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 August 2021 13:55