Local programs provide hope and second chances

Pictured from left are Prime For Life instructor Howard Dowdle, Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland; far right, Detention Center Administrator Captain Dereck Jones along with recent “Prime” graduates.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Substance misuse was defined in 2016 by the Surgeon General as “the use of alcohol or drugs in a manner, situation, amount, or frequency that could cause harm to the user or to those around them.” In Western North Carolina, almost half of adults living have reported that their lives are being or have been negatively affected by substance misuse, whether by themselves or a friend or family member (WNC Healthy Impact Community Health Survey).

Sixty-one-year-old Howard Dowdle’s life once negatively impacted those around him due to his own substance misuse; yet, for the last several years he has worked to bring about positive change to people who have misused drugs and alcohol. As an employee with No Wrong Door, Dowdle works with director Sheila Jenkins and others to offer an ongoing Prime for Life program at the Macon County Detention Center. 

Prime For Life, and trademarked national program, is dubbed as providing “… a judgment-free way of understanding how alcohol and drug-related problems develop, what we can do to prevent them, and why sometimes we need help.” In order to teach it, one must be certified. A native of Macon County, and part of a family that can trace its roots back at least seven generations in the area, Dowdle went through the certification program in order to give hope to people with whom he can identify.

“I had a career in telecommunications,” he said. “But after I was on my own recovery path, I wanted to help others help themselves. It’s been miraculous for many in the program to get their lives back. That’s why I do this work. Recovery is a reality.”

One-week classes conducted separately for both men and women, are facilitated by at least five certified “peers”  who have clearance to go into the Detention Center. One of the peers is a “veteran specialty, which is rare,” according to Dowdle. Another is a professional alcohol abuse counselor.

“The classes (which include up to 10 participants each class) are most effective … work best … when they are given by people who have been there themselves – who have recovered and overcome. Those in jail want to know if the peer has been where they are because the relationship is more trustworthy, stronger. It’s easier to talk about the issues. They will ask, ‘What’s your story?’ They want to know there is some sort of connection. And all have a goal, mostly that they don’t want to be in jail again.”

Prime for Life’s methods include offering specific guidance regarding personal choices, information on how to manage resistance, understanding support for change, and developing a plan for success. A wrkbook accompanies the week-long sessions.

“The classes are not required, only offered,” said Dowdle. “Classes are Monday through Friday, and participants receive a 20-hour certificate for the courts and for the Department of Motor Vehicles. They have an opportunity to talk about their path, since the classes are interactive. In the workbook, they have a chance to evaluate their past choices – a self-assessment – and the program’s model allows them to really look at their choices and empowers them to make better choices.

“One day a week we also do group sessions that focus on their legal issues, their lives, and their treatment status, and we help them navigate any issues … whatever they need to talk about. We work with them on their long-term goal , but mostly we help them figure out how the shorter goals will help them to reach the big goal,” he said.

In addition, Dowdle and the other peers will meet one-on-one with anyone incarcerated who requests a meeting. Parenting classes are offered by No Wrong Door, which also refers people to a variety of area resources such as Macon New Beginnings and Adult and Teen Challenge of the Smokies Men’s Center. 

Along with community leaders, professionals, and individual volunteers, Jenkins started No Wrong Door three years ago, primarily to support people transitioning from detention or treatment facilities who suffer from substance abuse and/or mental health. The main intention of No Wrong Door is community-based peer support and education. Jenkins shared that she would like to say that the drug problem is improving in Western North Carolina, but, “It’s not getting any better. We’ve moved into a different era of drugs with the fentanyl; the stronger the drug, the harder it is to get off of it. It’s an ongoing issue, and in order to help and be effective we have to constantly be changing what we do.”

She acknowledges that the staff and volunteers involved with No Wrong Door and other local programs aimed at assisting individuals and their family and friends is a “very emotional job. It can drain you,” said Jenkins, “so I have to make sure the staff is taking care of themselves so they can be effective. And then it’s especially tough when someone relapses or dies.”

But Dowdle said the rewards come in knowing someone is overcoming substance misuse, when he sees an individual living and working free of addiction. 

“It takes a village,” stressed Jenkins. “We have to have the support of the community. It’s been awesome. People have been kind and helpful. We have some new programs we want to implement. But we always need more funds and more volunteers.” 

One direction aimed at keeping substance misuse at bay is education. “It’s very, very important for children to know the dangers ahead of time,” pointed out Jenkins.  

“Inmates always ask, ‘Why didn’t I hear this in school,’ because they tell us that knowing the dangers of [substance misuse] may have prevented them from getting addicted and in trouble,” said Dowdle.

As a result, Reality Check 101 is another program, instituted a few years ago by Macon County Sheriff Robert L. Holland, that enables supervised inmates to enter the schools in order to share with students the reasons why they were arrested and what they have learned from that experience. 

“It’s an opportunity for the inmates to be able to do something that will make them feel like something positive is coming out of their bad choices,” said Dowdle.

The program stalled during the pandemic, but Sheriff Holland said plans are to reinstate it this month. 

“We have some inmates who just graduated from our Prime for Life program who have volunteered to take part in our first Reality Check 101 since the start of the pandemic. The program is about ‘real life’ stories and the consequences of bad choices. It gives kids the opportunity to hear firsthand from people who are battling addiction and what leads them to where they are today. What we have found is inmates telling their stories actually helps in their recovery, and for many it’s their first step to attempting recovery; but the most important step is acknowledging they have an addiction and asking for help themselves.”

In addition, the community focuses not only on those involved in substance misuse, but individuals affected by it. No Wrong Door offers what Jenkins calls “wrap-around service,” explaining that “families need support and help and we also do that. Families get exhausted. So wrap-around service means that we meet them where they are. We do what we can to help spouses, children … whoever is involved in their life. We go through it with them together … heal together. It’s all so multifaceted, the issues [involved with substance misuse].”

For more information about local services and No Wrong Door, Jenkins welcomes emails: sheila@nowrongdoorwnc.org.