HUNTINGTON — Through a thick and well-worn New England accent, Chris Herren told a story recognizable to any one of the roughly 3,000 West Virginia high school students gathered Wednesday at the Cam Henderson Center on Marshall University’s campus.
A McDonald’s All-American out of high school and a highly touted prospect entering the 1999 NBA Draft, the Massachusetts native Herren’s once-promising professional basketball career was derailed by repeated substance abuse — starting with alcohol, then prescription painkillers, then heroin.
Herren, who now advocates publicly for prevention and treatment, headlined the two-day Game Changer Opioid Awareness Summit, hosted Tuesday at West Virginia University and Wednesday at Marshall University, for West Virginia’s high school students.
The events were organized by the state Secondary School Activities Commission and MVB Bank, along with the two universities, the state Department of Health and Human Resources, and the Governor’s Office.
Students from more than a dozen high schools across southern West Virginia attended, including as far away as Greenbrier West.
The two-hour event also included presentations by inspirational speaker and author Rhonda Sciortino, who shared her own rags-to-riches story, and youth empowerment performer and musician Shaun Derik.
The summit kicked off the SSAC’s Game Changer Initiative, a student awareness campaign focused on prevention, compassionate treatment programs, and educational and employment opportunities.
It all comes with accepting the fact that West Virginia has a deeply rooted addiction problem, and that curtailing it for future generations begins with teaching the youth today, said Joe Boczek, owner-president of JB Business Strategies, who organized the event.
“If we can get to the kids through education and prevention, as well as the adults, we have a chance to severely diminish the opioid damages in West Virginia,” Boczek said.
The majority of students affected by opioid addiction, however, have never touched an illegal drug, he continued, but rather suffer at home as the byproduct of a family member’s addiction. The summit was therefore just as geared to arming students with prevention resources available for their families as well.
Though the drugs change, summits like Wednesday’s aren’t unlike the ones used for tobacco and alcohol prevention, added Tammy Collins, a prevention scientist at Marshall’s Center of Excellence for Recovery. Whether it’s heroin or cigarettes, the prevention tools students need are the same.
“It’s all about social and emotional learning,” Collins said. “Kids really need self-regulation — being able to understand and regulate their own thoughts and feelings — and self-efficacy — the belief that they can make themselves and their state better.”
The two events were also supported financially by a $50,000 contribution from Walmart.