GREENFIELD — Dozens of middle and high school students from across the county heard personal stories about the dangers of substance abuse Wednesday at the second annual youth summit.
One speaker addressed the crowd from a wheelchair, which he has used ever since he was hit by a drunken driver. Another spoke of her battle with drug abuse and described how she still considers herself a recovering addict.
More than 100 students packed Adaggios Banquet Hall for the second annual event sponsored by Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse.
The 105 students in attendance ranged from seventh to 12th grade and represented all four of the county’s public school corporations.
Members of the NASA Youth Council, who organized the event, said they wanted their peers to hear about the dangers of substance abuse from those who know the issue best, so they invited speakers with personal experience.
“We felt that someone with a story … that’s been through it would be able to connect with students more,” said Andrew Boyle, a Mt. Vernon High School senior.
Gretchen Pike, a Hancock County woman who is a recovering addict, is one who shared her story.
Pike said she speaks about her experience because she grew up in a home where no one talked openly about the dangers of drug abuse.
“These were taboo subjects,” she said.
Pike recalled going through the medicine cabinets of people whose children she babysat as a young woman. It was what the kids she ran with did, she said, and she didn’t recognize the danger.
When she was diagnosed as an adult with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder, Pike rediscovered the lure of narcotics.
“I started out wanting to get rid of my pain,” she said. “Four years later, … I was taking in excess of 30 pills a day. There’s good to these prescription drugs, … but it can get away from you.”
June 9, Pike will celebrate 26 years clean.
NASA executive director Tim Retherford said he wanted to share success stories with students in hopes of empowering them to reach out to others they believe could be struggling with addiction.
“We would love these youth to go back and over the next couple of years be the positive influence in the school,” Retherford said.
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Santos Cortez gave his presentation from his wheelchair. Cortez was left paralyzed after his police cruiser was struck by a speeding drunk driver in 2012.
Cortez showed dramatic photos of the accident, which left his squad car crumpled, and told students how the driver’s decision to get behind the wheel after drinking changed Cortez’s life forever.
“I miss being able to sit up in bed in the morning,” he said. “I don’t get to do that anymore.”
Last winter, which brought record snowfall, was especially hard because Cortez had to stay cooped up inside, he said.
“Wheelchairs and snow don’t mix, so I had to sit at the back door of my apartment and watch my wife play with my kids, build snowmen,” he said.
Cortez’s story resonated with Eastern Hancock High School senior Caleb Wallen.
Wallen said he expected to hear about the big changes in Cortez’s life – the surgeries to his spine and the prognosis that he would never walk again – but the little things Cortez now misses out on were most impactful to the teen.
“He really went into detail, how he missed just the feeling of the carpet (on his feet) in the morning,” he said. “That really hit me hard. I never realized the little things would matter so much.”
The inaugural youth summit was held for high school students only in 2012. Middle school-age students were originally invited, but the date ended up conflicting with ISTEP testing.
This year, Retherford was glad to see the event targeting a younger audience as well.
“Seventh and eighth grade, it’s such an important transitional time with young people,” he said. “They’re identifying who they want to be, who they are.”