Norwalk Mayor Sue Lesch launched a citywide war on drugs this summer.
"We're seeing increasing use in drugs and a lot of crimes related to drug use," Lesch said. "The police department's antenna is up that there seems to be more drug activity."
Huron County, and Norwalk in particular, are in the midst of a spike in drug activity. Law enforcement officials have noticed a troublesome trend of increasing heroin use among young and old alike. Norwalk has nearly tripled its drug investigations from 2002 to 2006 and drug arrests in the city are at a five-year high.
Experts told Lesch that teenagers and young adults are particularly susceptible to the lure of drugs so, in an effort to stem the rising tide of drug activity in her community, she's targeting them with educational campaigns.
"The reality is that adolescents are more vulnerable than any other age group to developing ... drug addictions," said Karen Russell, Director of Firelands Counseling and Recovery Services.
Health experts also say the most effective weapon against drug addiction is parents.
"Parents can make their child 400 percent less likely to use drugs," Huron County Health Department Health Education Director Angie Smith said. "No other program can match that success."
That's why Lesch helped form Community Prevention Partners, an organization made up of several area clubs, health and government agencies.
The partnership is designed to make families more aware of drug and alcohol abuse in the community and methods to keep it from happening in their homes. The group designed three methods of arming parents to fight for their children in the war on drugs.
Beginning in September, it provided resources for Drug Abuse Resistance Education and life skills training courses to be taught in every local school, Lesch said.
Thanks in part to Fisher-Titus Medical Center, the partnership is providing parents with free drug and alcohol testing kits, which parents can use on their children to test for drug use and deter them from using drugs in the first place.
Series about solutions
Last week, the partnership began hosting a series of symposiums and informal meetings to talk to parents and community members about solutions to Norwalk's drug epidemic.
Norwalk Police, the Huron County Health Department and the Alcohol, Drug, Addiction and Mental Health Services Board are all participating in the program.
Lesch is one of the main speakers at the meetings.
She's particularly aware of how drugs can ruin lives as her own has been personally touched by the tragedies of drug abuse.
In 2005, her nephew Zack Weaver was high on Oxycontin and alcohol when his car struck a tree at 100 mph. He was only 20 when he died.
For Lesch, parents and families who enable their children and loved ones to use drugs out of love, ignorance or denial is the greatest tragedy.
"When at age 15 (Zack) was caught drinking alcohol, we said, 'Thank God it's only alcohol,'" Lesch said during a Sept. 24 symposium at Norwalk Main Street's St. Paul Convocation Center. "We made excuses when Zack stole money ... We protected him from the consequences... We, Zack's family, closed our eyes to the signs of drug use."
Lesch's message to parents is that parents and family members need to be alert for drug abuse and be soldiers in this war.
"We invite you to seize the power," she said. "To influence the behavior and to act as needed to protect the children you love."
The Parent Factor
Health experts say the most effective way for parents to keep their kids off drugs is to simply pay more attention to them.
Smith said parents must be more vigilant about their children's friends, interests and whereabouts.
"Your child's most vulnerable hours are not after 8 p.m.," she said. "Their most vulnerable hours are 3-5 p.m. after school. That's when kids find trouble because we let our guard down."
Smith said parents should take time to connect with their children, communicating expectations and setting ground rules.
"Keep them busy in meaningful activities," she said. "Youth are less likely to be in trouble if they're involved in three hours per week of creative activity, clubs and sports."
Most of all, Smith emphasized that teenagers have networks of friends and ways to obtain drugs.
Parents must also network with other parents to keep their kids away from drugs. The must talk with one another about what their kids are doing. They should listen, not lash out, when other parents, police or school officials warn them of trouble.
"There's a lot out there that makes us feel irrelevant, but we have to recapture our power because we have the most to lose in this fight," she said.
For information on Community Health Partners or to obtain free drug or alcohol test kits, call city hall at 419-663-6700.