COLUMBUS — When we think about “rural development,” we usually think about things like new buildings, jobs, utilities and access to modern technology, including the Internet.
And while those things are all part of what make a rural community successful, there’s a single issue that threatens everything else: opioid abuse.
Farmers may not always think about opioids as a rural development issue, said Anne Hazlett, who leads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development. But as she sees it, opioids are directly tied to the success of our rural communities.
“We can’t talk about quality of life and economic opportunity in these (rural) places without talking about this issue,” said Hazlett, who spoke during a roundtable discussion on opioid abuse Aug. 17, at the Ohio Farm Bureau office in Columbus.
The issue in rural communities is often the same: a lack of resources, a long drive to get help, and denial that opioid abuse is even happening.
A group of 17 rural leaders spent two hours discussing what is being done in their communities to help people of all ages understand the issue, and solve the problem.
Related: Read Farm and Dairy’s award-winning series on rural addiction.
Todd Davis, who runs Ohio’s FFA Camp Muskingum, a camp for FFA members, said campers and adults were recently polled about their experience and opinion regarding drug use, and the results revealed a high number of students whose parents apparently aren’t discussing the issue with them on a regular basis.
According to the poll of 961 people, 392 said their parents never talk to them about substance abuse, and 330 said their parents only talk about it once a month.
“It was very overwhelming to see that a lot of parents and kids aren’t having the conversation about drug abuse,” said Davis.
Students were also asked about their participation in 4-H, FFA and Farm Bureau, and whether they felt those activities helped deter them from substance abuse. Some 364 said that belonging to those groups “definitely” makes a difference, and 299 said that it “probably” does.
The roundtable included a number of teachers and school resource faculty, who shared what they’re doing to reach students of all ages.
Karen Yanico, a Cambridge City Schools social worker, said she’s leading efforts to help students whose parents have addictions, and to help students get help when it’s needed.
“They (students) are accustomed to living in chaos,” said Yanico, adding that rural youth often face a high percentage of poverty and lack of nutrition, in addition to issues with drug abuse.
Roger Rennekamp, OSU Extension associate dean and director, said it’s important to not only educate youth about the dangers of drug abuse — but also train them to be resources in their own communities and their families.
He said major social changes are often led by young people, and he sees significant potential for young people to step up and lead the fight.
Four of the panelists hailed from Tuscarawas County, where educators are working in schools and the community to make a difference.
Michele Specht, Farm Bureau organizational director, said it’s important for people to “stay in their lane.”
She said there is a time to reach out to professionals, when dealing with addicts, but she said people can often do a lot on their own when it comes to prevention.
“We cannot solve the problem for people who are addicts, but we can help prevent it,” she said.
Rita Lahmers, a Farm Bureau leader in Tuscarawas County and a retired school teacher, is part of an effort called the Newcomerstown Community Action Network, which brings local services like the schools and library together for monthly meetings, to discuss solutions.
Lahmers said the meetings give community members a chance to discuss everything from treatment options, to faith-based efforts.
Roger Winemiller, a Montgomery County farmer whose own children have struggled with addiction, said it’s important to remember it is a disease, and that it takes a comprehensive effort to defeat.
He said addiction is a “brain disorder” that becomes your “A No. 1 priority,” once it takes over.
Winemiller, who lost two of his three children from overdoses, said his goal in life is to do something positive for the world, after losing so much.
“You want to know what hell is like?” I can tell you,” he said.
Hazlett said the roundtable helped “reaffirm” the complexity of the opioid issue and also the fact that it spans all parts of Ohio.
She said farmers are uniquely situated to fight against opioids because they know how to get thing done, and they know what needs done in their own communities.
They know what it takes to make things happen, to bring solutions,” she said. “They’re respected and not only are they impacted by this issue, but they can be a key cornerstone to bring those leaders together and work toward a solution.”
She said the input from the panelists would be used for developing the USDA’s community action guide, which is currently being formed, and will soon be released.
The meeting also included Ohio Farmers Union President Joe Logan, who talked about what his organization is doing to stay involved with the issue, and improve the quality of life for rural Ohioans.