‘We have to do it together’

By on March 31, 2023

Roxana Ballinger, co-chair of the Saving Lives Task Force.
Donnie Varnell of the Dare County Sheriff's Office speaks about harm reduction.
Roman Gabriel of Sold Out Youth Foundation, discusses the dangers of fentanyl.
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Efforts to address mental health, substance use include the faith community

An event this week underscored a significant change that has taken place locally in recent years. For some time, members of the faith community had been largely absent from discussions and work centered on addressing mental health and substance use challenges.

But that’s no longer the case, noted Wally Overman, co-chair of the Saving Lives Task Force. “The missing link was you,” he said at the March 30 “Faith Community Summit on Substance Use and Mental Health Challenges on the OBX.” “However, the last three years have provided a wonderful change. Thank you for being here and adding your voices to one of the most pressing issues facing not only Dare County, but also our state and our nation.”

The summit—sponsored by The Saving Lives Task Force’s Faith-Based Committee and held at St. Andrews By the Sea Episcopal Church—was attended by more than 80 people.

During the event, 12 representatives of different local groups—each working in some capacity to address community mental health and/or substance use issues—shared what their respective organization does and how people could connect with them.

Attendees at each table then discussed how to best get the information out into the community and the barriers to doing so. The Saving Lives Faith Committee plans to put into action the ideas generated at the summit in the coming year.

“You’re going to give us our marching orders for the faith-based committee,” Dr. Richard Martin, a task force member and summit organizer, told attendees.

Suggestions included sharing educational information with church congregations, giving more people “mental health first aid” training, placing resource information in local post offices and setting up informational booths at local events.

The barriers included the stigma around the topics, denial and the lack of communication and teamwork. Several people noted how churches even of the same denomination won’t talk to each other, let alone talk with other denominations.

Bonnie Bennett, chair of the faith-based committee, spoke for her table and insisted that reaching across “barriers of denominations” must happen to make a difference in the community. “Between the Saving Lives Task Force, the faith community and all the resources here, we can do it,” she said. “We have to do it together.”

“I’m very excited the faith and mental health people are teaming up,” Stephanie Beasley, an attendee and retired public school nurse, said after the event. “I think that’s the answer.”

Roman Gabriel, CEO of Sold Out Youth Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit that encourages students to pledge alcohol and drug abstinence, said he has worked with public and private schools in multiple states. He plans to work with Dare County Schools over the coming years.

“Guys, we have to educate our community,” he said. “There’s too much misinformation.” Gabriel said that a school in Arizona just lost two seventh graders to accidental fentanyl overdoses. One, after suffering a knee injury, had ordered what she thought were pain pills via TikTok, but what was delivered to her house was fentanyl that killed her instantly instead.

Holly West, another event speaker, leads NarAnon, a local support group for family members of people struggling with addiction. She said when her son was addicted to heroin for 10 years, she and her husband “did everything wrong,” including wiping out their retirement fund. They now help counsel others on better ways to help loved ones.

Several attendees shared that they had lost children to overdose and that the topic should be discussed more.

“It’s very real,” said Russ Howard, pastor of Cape Hatteras Baptist Church, who lost his adult son to fentanyl six years ago in Kill Devil Hills. He said his other adult children are currently “caught up in addiction.”

Keith Hamm of Mobile Crisis was slated as a speaker but was unable to attend. Speaking in his stead, Rev. Gina Miller of Saint John United Methodist Church in Avon said she has utilized that free service often for her parishioners and friends for both substance use disorders and for mental health crises.

“The reason it is free is to take off the pressure from the emergency departments and the hospitals,” Miller explained. “I’ve called and within two hours I’ve had someone [from Mobile Crisis] in Avon. Keep this in mind when you are ministering to someone in need: You have a toll-free number and someone immediately can start talking to them who is a trained professional.”

Donnie Varnell, who retired from the State Bureau of Investigations and now works for Dare County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement works in harm reduction, too, as officers administer naloxone when they are the first to arrive on the scene of an overdose.

“We thought we had an overdose crisis until we had COVID,” Varnell said, explaining that  overdose death rates then increased even more, by 20-30%, since COVID came on the scene.

Narcotics officers have also guided some people into treatment and recovery programs rather than incarceration and have transported people to programs “as far as Nash County,” Varnell said.

Other summit speakers included Patty McKenna of Dare County Community Collaborative and the Outer Banks Relief Foundation; Dave Peterson of Trillium Health Resources; Roxana Ballinger of Saving Lives Task Force and the Dare County Community Collaborative; Susan Lee of Be Resilient OBX; Kelly Nettnin Fleming of Breaking Through Task Force and Healthy Carolinians of the OBX; Emily Urch of Recovery Court; Kodie Bryant Oliver of Dare Challenge; and Teresa Clarkin-Green of Cross Roads OBX.

For more information, visit www.savinglivesobx.com.


  • Glenn

    It’s about time churches started waking up to what’s happening in not only the OBX but also throughout our country. I grew up in the church but ashamed to say that, with few exceptions, churches throughout this country have been asleep at the wheel. Glad to hear some of the churches are stopping their habits of just asking for tithes and offerings and are finally leaving their stuffy churches to try to help this country. We’ll continue to do our part whether the churches stick with it or not. Thanks to all the other organizations that have been “present” all throughout this horrific epidemic. Thanks for all you do.

    Friday, Mar 31 @ 6:54 pm
  • Elle

    Please keep abstinence programs out of our schools. They have been proven ineffective over and over again, and can actually have the opposite effect. Thank you to our community leaders who are providing harm reduction and keeping addicts, who are only hurting themselves, out of jails.

    Saturday, Apr 1 @ 9:21 am
  • Truth Inc.

    What about all the politicians and doctors that are rapidly accelerating mental health issues with their current path they’re leading the country down?

    Oh that’s right, you can’t point out facts without being labeled some type of “phobe” any longer.

    Saturday, Apr 1 @ 9:26 am
  • Concerned

    If the county is really concerned about drugs in Dare County they have to look at the legal prescriptions being written for anti deprecents and other mind altering medications.

    Tuesday, Apr 4 @ 12:45 pm
  • 5cents

    I think it’s admirable that the local faith community is making plans to help combat this heartbreaking epidemic. However, you will find attendance of the target audience few and far between at the locations mentioned for getting the word out, such as church or the post office. There are three much more frequented locations that may be reasonably applicable to the populace you’re trying to reach. These places are: court, hospitals, and jails. Subcategories could be gas stations or grocery stores. It might be easier to get through to someone suffering from substance abuse if you reach out to them in their hospital bed after they have narrowly escaped a fatal overdose, rather than placing a poster in a post office that they may, or may not frequent.

    Elle, I feel your comment to be especially ignorant to the gravity and sensitivity of this issue. You may Google any amount of peer reviewed research attesting to the statistical validity of the effectiveness of substance abuse education to the youth. Everyone takes some form of driver education to get their license, but we all know there is no shortage of stupid moves being made on the road. By your logic, we should nix driver’s ed altogether because if people are educated on the dangers of the road, that will make them want to crash head-on into the nearest soccer mom’s Honda odyssey filled with goldfish snacking youngsters. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? So do you.

    Beyond that, these “addicts” are human beings. They are loved by at least one person, and more likely a heap more than that. They are not just hurting themselves. They’re hurting the people that love them, whether they’ve overdosed and checked out altogether, or are still alive battling this monster with the people on the sidelines feeling the anxiety, hopelessness, and pain of not being able to get through to them before it’s too late. These are people’s sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, moms, dads, and treasured friends.

    157,680. One hundred fifty seven thousand six hundred and eighty. That is the number of hours in 18 years. That is the number of hours someone has spent caring for, looking after, and teaching a child before they reach legal adulthood. And anyone who has offspring over the age of 18 knows damn well the job does NOT simply end there. Just because they turn 18 doesn’t mean you stop loving them, doesn’t mean you stop trying to help them, or guide them, support them and teach them. But if abstinence education can save even ONE of these precious souls from going down that dark path, why would you deem it unworthy?

    These kids are not like we were. And because of that I think it may need to be approached differently. This is a digital, highly interactive generation. As such, that’s how this education aimed towards them should be. I’m not personally opposed to getting in their faces while they’re very young and impressionable and scaring the veritable shit out of them. Everyone has loads of fun with filters that make you look like you have cat ears or give you a face-lift or sweet golden tan. I propose to anyone that wishes to undertake such a project a filter or two that morphed the subject into what they would look like after they’ve done meth for a year or longer. Or what they would look like as a corpse after they’ve overdosed. Present them with the visuals of the possibility of what they would look like, and the last image they would be leaving behind for the people who love them. And yes, that could be considered harsh, but weighed against the very real option of leaving parents and loved ones to make funeral arrangements, the former could be a far more attractive choice

    (Sorry for the length, Mark. I know how that bothers you, but I really am helpless in that department).

    Tuesday, Apr 4 @ 1:19 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Scents I am publishing this with the caveat that any other comments that are this long will not be published, regardless of content. You gotta be more concise.

    Tuesday, Apr 4 @ 5:50 pm