MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Illicit drug use in the United States has been steadily increasing, and in 2014 alone, there were over 7 million Americans who struggled with drug use.
West Virginia has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in the United States and one in 10 people in the state battle with some form of drug addiction.
West Virginia has taken measures into its own hands by adding supportive, alternative education programs to augment drug courts, which are designed to be an alternative to serving jail time for nonviolent, drug-dependent offenders.
The goal is to reduce future offenses and substance abuse while providing life skills.
It’s here where the West Virginia University Extension Service has been teaming up with many drug court programs across the state to provide additional support and education that recovering addicts need to begin a new life.
Kandi Messinger, health educator, WVU Cabell County Extension Service, teaches nutrition and cooking basics to those recovering from substance abuse so they are more able to support themselves and their families once the program ends.
When asked why, she indicated that it is a cause that’s close to her heart — she watched a personal friend go through the struggles of addiction, and she eventually lost that friend to an overdose.
“If you do not have support, you are more apt to go back to your old ways,” she explained.
“And I do everything that I can daily to help these individuals not only learn about taking care of themselves and their families but also provide them another shoulder to lean on and gain strength from as they walk down a path that’s not always easy.”
Three years ago, Messinger was approached by drug court officials and asked if she would be willing to integrate her Eating Smart and Being Active program into their curriculum.
The eight-week class teaches those suffering from substance abuse cooking skills, healthy eating habits, food safety and how to save money at the grocery store.
“I thought the programs were a perfect fit for one another. You’d be amazed how many people don’t know how to cook and eat healthy,” she explained.
“Once people are trying to get clean, they need nutrition. And through their struggle, they may have lost sight of eating healthy and cooking for themselves and their children.”
But, according to Messinger, many seem to have a knack for it once they get started. Participants are eager to learn and eager to gain those life skills.
A typical class has about 10 to 15 students who are split into separate groups to make four different recipes.
Time between each task is spent playing educational, interactive games to create a comfortable atmosphere for the participants.
Messinger teaches two classes a year, which roughly equates to 30 students in the program.
Not only do students walk away with a wealth of knowledge about cooking, but they also receive basic kitchen supplies to help them start implementing their skills at home.
The program provides cutting boards, measuring cups and spoons, utensils and even infused water bottles; there are also frequent drawings for larger scale cookware items.
These supplies allow them to continue practicing and working on their passion for cooking.
Families can make healthy, home-cooked meals together, rather than relying strictly on fast food or prepackaged meals.
Participants pass on the skills they learn in class onto other members of their family.
“It’s inspiring to see someone who has taken these life skills and this 12-step program and conquered something that once controlled their entire life,” she said.
“Some people have been able to not only stay clean but regain custody of their kids and get full-time jobs.”
According to Cabell County drug court officials, the program overall has seen a significant uptick in success rates — 55 percent of participants successfully complete the program.
Future projects to round out the curriculum include a community garden meant to break ground this summer.
Individuals in the program will be able to prepare meals with the produce they have grown themselves. The garden will offer free produce to the community as a means of giving back.
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