Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

The drug epidemic in Macon County is an ongoing conversation amongst county leaders and residents. Destroying families, taking lives, and plaguing a community, drugs are rampant through the nation and communities like Macon County are constantly searching for ways to keep up.

“It’s imperative that all stake holders be involved and some who were not present were mentioned and I’m confident those organizations will be included in future meetings,” said Sheriff Robert Holland. “I think this initiative is a positive step in the right direction. This is an issue that no agency can adequately address on its own. It’s going to take a community.”

Macon County Commissioner Vice-Chair Ronnie Beale lead the charge this week to host an “action” meeting of nearly 100 people from Macon County on how to attack Macon County’s drug problem, The meeting was intended to be all action driven. No more talking about the problem. No more planning to plan how to handle the problem. But to put actual practices into place to solve the drug epidemic in Macon County.

“I thought the meeting was great,” said Mike Barres, director of Men’s Teen Challenge of the Smokies. Barres runs the faith-based rehab treatment program addressing addiction in men. Barres was just one of about 80 individuals who met at the Entegra Bank Corporate Center to launch an action plan on how to solve the drug problem in Macon County. “It was so good to see that many people from so many different agencies and fields of work coming together with a great concern for

the addiction and mental health issues in our county. So many people say ‘we need to do something.’ Well today Ronnie Beale and those who organized it did something. There was not only a lot of suggestions and ideas exchanged, but next steps planned. Ronnie was right when he said we don’t need more ‘reports.’ We all know the problem is in epidemic proportions. It’s time to take action.”

Commissioner Beale referred to Tuesday’s meeting as the initial meeting of “No Wrong Door” a comprehensive, countywide, joint effort to address not only drug addiction but mental health issues, since the two problems are closely intertwined.

“I could not be more pleased with the turnout and the enthusiasm shown by the 80 or so folks who attended which included a very diverse group of Macon County citizens and others who are very interested in searching for solutions for not only the opioid epidemic but also those suffering from mental illness in our community,” said Beale. “By the end of the day the walls were literally filled with ideas of how we can move forward locally in collaboration with providers, law enforcement, churches and others.  We all agreed we know the problem.”

Local law enforcement, agency representatives from department of social services, county leaders, and town officials shared ideas, experiences, and for the first time, worked collaboratively to share resources.

“I believe it was a very productive meeting with a lot of great diverse minds working together on finding a solution to this major epidemic our county and country is dealing with,” said Town Planner Justin Setser.

Barres said having so many different agencies, churches, and organizations, in room one, working together was something that had not happened before and something that might be a game changer.

“One of the great things illustrated today is that we all need to work together,” said Barres. “‘No Wrong Door’ was a great name for today’s meeting. Everyone that is working on this is valuable to help those who are struggling. We need to network and work together to attack this ‘ion’ as Derek Roland put it. We talked a lot about figuring out a way to pool all of the available resources together so that people could know where to get help. I’m excited to see how that will be done.”

“No Wrong Door” was the first step in searching for solutions and those in attendance agreed that those solutions would come from local ideas and local involvement.

“Without a doubt the event was exceptionally beneficial,” said Patrick Betancourt, Director of the Macon County Department of Social Services. “While service providers (mental health, public health, social services, law enforcement, etc. ) that work with families affected by substance use daily have some of answers on how to address this issue, we certainly do not have all of the answers.  Because this epidemic is something that impacts everyone in our community, the best solutions to address the challenge will come from the community.  I loved the reminder yesterday of the quote, “nothing about us without us.”  That statement is especially true in dealing with an overwhelming issue such as substance use.”

Betancourt said the greatest takeaway he had after yesterday’s meeting was the community is inspired and motivated, something that needs to happen to address mental health and drug addiction.

“As for takeaways, the first takeaway I left with ties directly into why the meeting was so beneficial – the community wants and needs to be a part of the solution,” said Betancourt. “This community is deeply invested in finding a way to overcome this, to learn from this, and to heal itself.  It truly is a system of care that also targets a specific need (in this case: addressing substance use that negatively impacts individuals and families).  The other take away I left with yesterday is that there is already a tremendous amount of work occurring to address this challenge.  With all the work that is already being accomplished in various communities and agencies, it will be important to continue good communication to coordinate solutions across those various communities and agencies and to creatively problem-solve in partnership with one another. This will reduce the silos that some entities find themselves in because of funding limitations. Yesterday’s meeting demonstrated that there is a lot of work ahead of all of us to address this overwhelming issue but with the energy and expertise in the room yesterday, we will be successful in addressing this.”

Commissioner Beale said the important thing to ensure now, is that the county continue to build on the momentum.

“The plan now is to take all the good work from the meeting and formulate a working plan and hopefully have this group reconvene and review and then have a working plan for the future for Macon County to help not only the most vulnerable of our population but also their families who are also suffering,” said Beale.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, dozens of agencies in Macon County were working on their own to best address mental health and drug problems in the county. With the initial meeting completed, for the first time, the agencies can pool resources and work comprehensively toward the same goal.

“I cannot thank all those who attended enough not only for their attendance but for their valuable input,” said Beale. “Without a doubt Macon County has the knowledge and the people to make a difference in our community.  As we all agreed yesterday we can no longer depend on Washington DC or Raleigh to solve this ever growing problem. But as we determined, by all of us working together we can and will make a difference not only now but for future generations.  We also realized this will take time and effort which everyone in the room agreed and are willing to do both.”