The Tennessee Department of Health is putting human faces on an epidemic.
TN Faces of Opioids, a media campaign funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showcases the stories of people who struggle with opioid addiction.
Statewide television commercials debuted in July to kickstart the campaign. Since then, TN Faces of Opioids has been featured on billboards, radio shows and local television, said Elizabeth Hart, TDH associate director of communications.
“There are some really incredible stories here,” Hart said.
One of these inspiring stories is that of Amy Sawyer, who heard about TN Faces of Opioids while scrolling through Instagram.
Sawyer is a born and raised Blount Countian who began her struggle with substances when she was 14 — but her hardship began long before then. Sawyer said she was molested by a family member from the ages of 4-9.
Her childhood trauma didn’t end there, however.
Despite having straight A’s and strict parents, Sawyer started high school and found herself hanging with the wrong crowd. She made friends with a popular girl who asked her if she’d ever smoked marijuana.
The first night she ever tried drugs, she said she was raped by her friend’s boyfriend.
From then on, drugs and alcohol remained a consistent part of her life until she was in her 30s.
By the time she was 31, Sawyer had damaged relationships with her family and husband. She had spent periods of time living in her car and received medical attention for abscesses due to needle use.
Sawyer had considered treatment several times but decided against it.
“I was afraid of what kind of help I’d be getting,” she said.
Then, she got in touch with a friend of her husband’s who had been to Cornerstone of Recovery in Louisville.
“A lot of times it felt like rehab was like a punishment, but once I got there, it was such a luxury,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer was able to detox, go through therapy for her childhood trauma, work on the relationship with her husband and leave drugs behind.
“It wasn’t until I went to Cornerstone that I met people who were like me,” Sawyer said. “I learned that it wasn’t necessarily that I was a bad person; it was that I had gotten myself trapped and needed a way out.”
Sawyer will reach four years of sobriety on Dec. 2 and now works at Cornerstone as an alcohol and drug counselor.
Sawyer is just one of 81 Tennesseans from more than 70 counties who have shared his or her story with TN Faces of Opioids.
Robbie, from Washington County, became a pharmacist after watching several of his family members struggle with drug addiction. Judith, from Wayne County, founded a nonprofit that offers free referral services to people who want to overcome addiction.
Variation in stories and willingness to share are what make the campaign worthwhile to Hart, who said she has worked on the campaign since its start.
“It’s amazing to see and hear all of these stories from people from all walks of life,” Hart said. “To see all the real Tennesseans.”
The Maryville Board of Education adopted a revised conduct policy Monday, Oct. 21, that emphasizes positive behavior supports when disciplining students.
The updated language in Policy 6.300, Code of Conduct, is mandated by a new state law that requires public schools to adopt “trauma-informed” discipline policies.
That means discipline balances accountability with the understanding that adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can affect a child’s brain development, learning and behavior. Students still face consequences for misbehavior, but the school also provides support such as counseling and behavior intervention plans.
“I feel good about our current practices,” Director Mike Winstead told the board before its unanimous vote on the first reading of the policy. “I think we can strengthen some of those, and we’re working to do that.”
The policy dovetails with Maryville City Schools’ efforts over the past year working with Harmony Family Center to train staff who can guide students to go beyond reacting: allowing them to to regulate their behavior, relate to others and use reason.
Montgomery Ridge Intermediate School Principal Kevin Myers told the board that giving a student detention is easy. “The hard part sometimes is taking the time to try to understand what goes behind that behavior and what caused it,” he said. “If we can start to have some of those conversations and build those relationships with kids, we can do a better job of intervening in behavior.”
Myers described for school board members at Monday’s meeting the efforts made this year by staff at Montgomery Ridge Intermediate School, where the meeting was held.
United Way guided MRIS in a simulation of what it’s like to be a family living in poverty. Then Montgomery Ridge staff attended training at Harmony, as Coulter Grove Intermediate School and Maryville’s elementary school employees did last year.
Maryville is serving a changing demographic, Myers said during an interview after the meeting. “We still have great families, but we have kids who go home to families and home situations that we thought for the longest time, not in Maryville. But they are in Maryville now, and we have to honor that.”
More than a quarter of Tennesseans have experienced three or more ACEs, such as divorce, substance abuse or emotional abuse, according to a 2016 study from the state Commission on Children and Youth.
Myers said the poverty simulation taught him to have more patience when dealing with family behaviors that frustrate him at times.
“I watched my faculty do things in that poverty simulation that I never thought they would do. They were mean to each other,” he said, although he attributes some of it to their competitive spirit.
“To see people lie and cheat and steal after an hour of poverty, knowing that it ended for them, for some families it never ends, it’s generational,” he said.
Through the training at Harmony, Myers said he realized the value of children with ACES having support systems, adults they trust, resiliency and coping mechanisms.
Putting what they learned into action, during the first nine weeks of school, each MRIS teacher sent to the family of 10 students a positive, handwritten postcard.
“We know that we have families we work with that school wasn’t the best part of their childhood,” Myers said. “Sometimes the only time a parent hears from a school is when something’s wrong.”
Students were overwhelmed by the surprise cards, he said.
This nine weeks, the educators are being challenged to have meaningful, nonacademic conversations with students outside the classroom, getting to know them better.
A sheet modeled after the board game Clue includes places such as the cafeteria, playground and hallway. Teachers will fill in slips of paper with their name, the name of the student with whom they interacted, the location and a description of the interaction.
When teachers respond to a “challenging behavior,” they ask students “restorative” questions designed to strengthen relationships: What happened? What were you thinking of at the time? What have you thought about since? Who has been affected by what you have done? What do you think you need to do to make things right?
“You don’t have to go to a kid and tell them what they did wrong,” Myers said. “Sometimes they’ll own it, and when they own it, then you can work on it.”
The library at Eagleton Elementary School sprouted a pumpkin patch Monday. Forty-three students brought in pumpkins decorated as their favorite characters for the Storybook Pumpkin Patch. This was the first year EES has done this, but librarian Rebecca Dickenson explained, “Brenda Goins at Porter has been doing this for several years, and it looked like a lot of fun.” At Eagleton Elementary this fall, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Mo Willems’ Pigeon were the most popular choices for student creations. Junie B. Jones and The Little Engine That could popped up on pumpkins, too. No carving was allowed, so the students used paint, markers, yarn, cardboard tubes and more to decorate the gourds. The pumpkins will be on display in the EES library until Friday, and Dickenson posted a video of them on YouTube at http://bit.ly/EESpumpkins.