Ohio’s death rate from overdoses has jumped 440 percent since 1990, driven largely by prescription and multiple-drug abuse. And every day, 2,500 youths ages 12-17 abuse a prescription pain killer for the first time.
The magnitude of the problem hit home three years ago for one Clark County mother, spurring a fight against the epidemic that cost her teenage son his life, an effort that is now being recognized statewide.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is lauding the work that New Carlisle resident Danielle Smoot has done with Cole’s Warriors, which she started in response to her 16-year-old son Cole Smoot’s prescription drug overdose death. DeWine considers it a prototypical model for other community grass roots organizations.
“Danielle is really an extraordinary person, and without a doubt, the work she is doing is saving lives,” said DeWine. “Cole’s tragic death proves that just one pill can be deadly.”
DeWine said prescription drug abuse is not something law enforcement or lawmakers will be able to solve without help.
“It takes the help of people like Danielle who are willing to share their stories and educate the public about the reality of the pain that drugs cause,” DeWine said.
DeWine heaped praise on Smoot at the Drug Abuse Community Forum at Springfield High School this month and has been so impressed with Smoot’s work that he presented her with the state’s inaugural Distinguished Civilian Leadership Award in October.
“It speaks volumes for them, that they are going beyond what has typically been done to explore new ways of attacking the drug abuse epidemic,” said Smoot “What he (DeWine) has done by giving this award is make a statement that you don’t have to be in law enforcement to make an impact.
“We have so much to give,” she said, referring to those who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses. “At the heart of the matter, I’m just a mom that loves her son so much that I don’t want to see any other mom to go through this.”
Smoot was recently asked to speak in West Carrollton, Cincinnati, Perrysburg and Wheelersburg as part of Gov. John Kasich’s statewide Start Talking campaign, which aims to raise awareness and provide funds to educate middle-school aged students.
Cole’s Warriors, which is partially funded by money seized from drug dealers, has been able to make its impact through three major outreach programs:
- Permanent prescription drug “take-back boxes” in Clark County, where old prescriptions can be turned in for safe disposal. In partnership with Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly, “take-back boxes” are at the Springfield, Enon and German Township police departments and the Springview Government Center. It was announced at last week’s Drug Abuse Forum that more than 1 million pills have been collected and disposed of.
- A comprehensive school education program that includes a drug-free pledge, a contract between Cole’s Warriors, the student and the parent(s). There is no school involvement, and random drug tests are consented to with results only given to parents. It is currently in nine local schools.
“When they sign up, they sign up for all their high school years,” said Smoot. “If they sign up in ninth grade, that means they can be tested throughout high school. It can be a very effective deterrent. The testing is confidential, but the rewards are visible.”
One in five students are doing prescription drugs, Smoot said a Clark County Youth Risk Behavior Survey said.
“Why is that 20 percent so vocal?” she asked. “Why isn’t the 80 percent majority vocal? So this is about helping them to find their voice and rewarding them along the way.”
Another part of the awareness effort is the Sending Humanity A Wake-up Call club, a teen-led prevention and social awareness group at Tecumseh High School, where Cole was a student.
“It’s so important for kids to feel they have a safe place and feel empowered to speak to their peers,” she said. “What they do and what they say will be more impactful than anything we adults can ever do.”
- TipSubmit, a mobile smartphone app that allows anonymous reporting of tips to local law enforcement.
“It’s not just something that belongs to the kids, but to the entire county,” she said. “It’s kind of like Crime Stoppers. I know it is being used, and I know the response of law enforcement to it has been quick.”
The success of the programs is due to teamwork, said Smoot.
“In the community, the response has been overwhelmingly incredible,” she said. “We’ve not had the barriers that other communities have. I have been embraced from day one.”
A major part of the team has been Family and Youth Initiatives in New Carlisle, which helped Smoot start Cole’s Warriors and supports it as one of its eight major programs.
The teamwork is crucial as the drug abuse awareness problem is particularly large here.
“Even today, they don’t recognize the problem, yet their young people are dying,” said Smooth of the community at large.
One reason may be that drug abuse, and particularly with prescription drugs, tends to be a destructive force that lives in the shadows of everyday life.
“One of the things with Cole’s case is it was a little unique,” said Smoot. “You didn’t have a history of drug abuse, just the ingestion of one pill. Cole was incredibly normal.
“Cole was educated to the dangers, but his downfall was he just didn’t think it could happen to him.”
But three years ago this month, it did. Smoot reflected on the three-year anniversary of Cole’s methadone overdose death.
“I think it is harder in year three than in year one,” said Smoot. “In year one, you have the hope that things will get easier and maybe the pain will subside a little or your tolerance to the pain will grow. But in year three, you realize that isn’t going to happen, and this is your new normal.
It all isn’t negative, however.
“I’ve seen more beauty in life than you could never have imagined out of this,” Smoot said.
At the recent Drug Abuse Forum, DeWine and his staff wore red and blue, the team colors for Cole’s favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, as a silent reminder of the reason for the fight. They also wore wore sterling silver bracelets, personally donated by a staff member, with the Bible verse John 3:16 on them “to emphasize the faith angle of this fight.”
“Through this tragedy, I have seen the heart of God in complete strangers,” Smoot said. “Even though the pain has been overwhelming at times, I have been overwhelmed by people’s beauty and compassion as well.”
Just as DeWine has been overwhelmed by Smoot’s passion and dedication. “Danielle’s efforts have clearly helped make a difference.”