Fred Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
West Virginia’s communities continue to see their share of scary things. While the roots of addiction issues have historically run deep in Appalachia, no one was prepared for the millions of prescription pills that flooded our state between 2008 to 2017. From there, we’ve seen a transition from opioids to heroin to fentanyl, and in some regions of the state, methamphetamine. The drugs are stronger, more lethal. Unsurprisingly, deaths from overdoses are higher in West Virginia than in any other state. This crisis has taken a toll on industry, education and families, and it contributes to violence, crime, housing problems and homelessness. And although each community has experienced the crisis differently, none is unaffected. Some communities continue to thrive, regardless. Some are virtually ghost towns.
In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, people chatted over their fences, watched each other’s houses when they went away, asked about the weather and so on. Now, we are prone to keep to ourselves and mind our own business. Imagine what it would be like to be a kid, growing up in West Virginia in these times.
Again this year at the Legislature, we see well-intentioned legislators working to fix systems that have been broken by the drug crisis, like the foster care and child welfare systems. From the state level, they look at things in regard to numbers, cost and infrastructure. Kids must be removed from unsafe environments, for example, but where does the state put them once they’re removed? What is the growing cost to Medicaid for treating kids’ mental health care needs? How does the state address the lack of mental health care providers?
On the community level, the crisis manifests itself in very real, tangible ways. In many of our communities, good neighbors respond like this: a local church initiates a backpack program for food insecure students; a local business person sponsors a community group that provides tutoring after school, so kids have a safe place to hang out; a teacher opens her home to a student who needs an emergency placement; an EMS employee volunteers at a summer camp for at-risk kids, because he’s has met a number of them when answering calls at their homes; countless parents offer up their couches to their children’s friends who have no place else to stay.
It’s true — Fred Rogers’ “helpers” are alive and well, and we owe them more than just our gratitude. We owe them an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas on how we can best address the drug crisis on the community level. In their experiences lies the blueprint of how we connect policies created on the federal and state levels to the needs on the community level. Just fixing state systems won’t get us out of these scary times; we need to work on fixing communities, where these kids are more than numbers. They’re our neighbors.
Over the next year, the organization Think Kids, with support from The Greater Kanawha Valley Community Foundation, will hold community listening sessions around the state, beginning here in Kanawha and surrounding counties. County by county, we plan to compile a comprehensive, statewide assessment of how communities are responding to the needs of affected children — their greatest challenges, their priorities and their recommendations on how to move forward.
The goal is to build a ground-up approach that fuses with the top-down approach from the federal and state levels. As government funding is released and disseminated, we want to ensure that these community stakeholders get the resources they need to meaningfully respond to their specific challenges and opportunities. Research shows that the people most directly affected by systemic barriers and inequities are the best positioned to drive change in their own neighborhoods.
As we plan meetings throughout the area, we encourage those organizations and individuals who have an interest to reach out and get involved. Currently, there is no state office or task force dedicated to addressing the needs of children affected by the drug crisis. Instead, the response has been a patchwork of reactionary, adult-focused programs and services that have been systemic, isolated and do not address the health of affected children. Perhaps a statewide assessment that includes your input is what the state needs to pull the pieces together into a blueprint for action.
To the helpers, please know that your acts of kindness don’t just give kids hope, they keep the spirit of your community alive. Maybe one day, rather than telling the state’s story of the drug crisis through death rates and dying communities, we tell it through the acts of good people who, despite the odds, saved their neighborhoods.