In 2015, the deaths of 43 people in Surry County were confirmed from overdoses, giving the county one of the highest rates of unintentional suicides in the state.
To help battle those numbers, Project Lazarus is working to bring awareness of the issue to students and their parents, with a hope of teaching children at a young age about not taking prescription medications if they don’t have their name on them.
Karen Eberdt, coordinator for Project Lazarus in Surry County, praised the cooperation of Elkin City Schools in allowing the group to share its message with the school system’s children and parents during Monday’s board of education meeting.
One of the messages she shares is “medicine looks like candy and candy looks like medicine,” she explained to the school board as she opened a wooden box made by a student to be a traveling medicine cabinet so students can see in person what she means.
Nationwide, 140 people die a day to overdoses, Eberdt reported, adding that number is five times as many people lost to guns.
“Elkin City Schools is my poster school system this year,” Eberdt said, noting how open the system is to allowing her group to share its message.
On March 8, Elkin Elementary School held a parent symposium. “[Principal Pam Colbert] tasked me to find speakers, and she got the parents there,” she said. “While one speaker was talking to the parents, another was talking to the kids on the kids’ level.”
A key to opening the conversation between parents and children is that the children know the parents learned about it, and the parents know the children learned, Eberdt explained. “Other school systems in Surry County are looking at copying you on that,” she said.
The speakers included the mother of a teen who took just one of his grandmother’s pain medicines and overdosed and died from it and the mother of a teen who died while he was texting her back and driving down the road.
In the hallways at the school, others, such as Eberdt with her medicine cabinet, were set up to share information with the parents and students also.
The desire to reach out to the younger students stems from a study of demographics which reports a spike in the number of children 5 years old and younger who are dying from unintentional overdoses, Eberdt said as she showed a graph of the report’s results.
She said when she speaks with students she asks them how many have younger siblings, and encourages them to share the information she gives them with their younger siblings as well.
“And as a parent, I don’t just talk to the kids. I put a temporary tattoo on the kids, because I know if a kid comes home with a tattoo, then the parent is going to ask why they have it, and the kid will go get the flyer of information from their bookbag to share with the parents. We arm the kids with information,” Eberdt said.
Project Lazarus also works with other age groups about opioid and prescription drug dangers, as well as the Good Samaritan law.
She shared a story from last year when four friends in Mount Airy took opioids together. One of the teens overdosed and the others didn’t want to get in trouble, so instead of calling 911 for help, they left their friend in a parking lot behind a funeral home.
“In North Carolina, we have the Good Samaritan law, even if you’ve done something illegal, you can call 911 and the Good Samaritan law protects you,” she said of the message she is sharing with youth. At the middle school level, that included having the students sign a pledge they would call 911.
Also, Project Lazarus has a Mission Possible effort they are leading, which includes the showing of the documentary “Overtaken,” about surviving overdoses.
This week, two projects took place in Elkin City Schools. On Wednesday morning, at the drop-off line for the elementary and middle schools, members of Elkin Police Department greeted parents and gave them an opportunity to turn in any unused prescription medications, which then are later incinerated. Those who turned in medicines received a coupon for a Chick-fil-A sandwich.
Also, at the middle and high schools, by grade level, the students watched “Overtaken,” which included videos of commentary by area leaders and residents.
She said if students have to hear something 176 times before it sinks in, she wants to be one of the ones they here multiple times. “We can’t have any more kids dying,” she said.
While North Carolina is not one of the states with the highest death rates for overdoses any more, Surry County is one of the worst counties for that, she said. “Wilkes is worse than us.”
“We’ve got to change the culture of this, and swing the pendulum back the other way,” she said.
Superintendent Dr. Randy Bledsoe said, “It is phenomenal the numbers of users and abusers and those overdosing between the ages of 21 and 40. We hope teaching them early will make a difference.”
“You guys are setting an incredible example,” Eberdt said of Elkin schools.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.