At a recent work session, Forsyth County Commissioners got to hear first-hand experience of the local school systems’ efforts to keep at-risk teens sober and healthy.
During the work session on Tuesday, April 6, commissioners heard a presentation about Forsyth County’s efforts to bring drug awareness to the citizens and early intervention steps that are both effective and long-lasting.
Staff from substance abuse programs spoke, as well as representatives from the Academies of Creative Education of Forsyth County Schools, which include Gateway Academy, Forsyth Academy and Forsyth Virtual Academy.
Matt Meyer, Insight Program director, first explained that he had been working with Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills and the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council to “effectively make a dent” in addiction in the county. He said that through his work and research, he found that early intervention played a big part in solving the problem.
“The sooner that we can reach at-risk youth that are in the beginning stages of drug abuse, we really believe that we could have a long-term effect on life-long addiction with adults throughout the county,” Meyer said. “And that was our goal.”
Meyer then highlighted Gateway Academy’s staff and efforts to reach at-risk youth and intervene before their substance abuse problem worsens. He explained that when students have a violation at one of the high schools in the county, a form of intervention would be going to Gateway Academy.
“Gateway [Academy] is, in my opinion, the perfect place to reach the most at-risk youth throughout the entire county in one place,” Meyer said.
Drew Hayes, principal of the Academies of Creative Education, recognized Mitch Durdle, the substance abuse counselor at Gateway Academy. Hayes said that Mitch has been the “perfect person” to help students feel comfortable, strong and cared for.
“[Mitch] has shifted our culture to a point where students are reaching out to try to be sober as opposed to reaching out to try and keep one another active in drugs and alcohol,” Hayes said.
Durdle thanked Hayes for the recognition and then gave a presentation to the board about what he does as a counselor. He explained that he typically works with students around the age of 15 and 16 but said that the average age of first substance use in Forsyth County is around 13 years old. So, when Durdle begins to see them, students could be “possible two and three years into abuse.”
He explained that in the past three years, he has met with 287 students individually and has had 885 individual sessions with the students. Anonymous surveys from the students all reported very high remarks about Durdle’s sessions, scoring an average of 9 out of 10.
“What [the sessions] kind of look like is that we’ll sit down, and we’ll talk about a wide variety of things from where it is [the students] want to do,” Durdle said.
Durdle said that sometimes students are not receptive and, when students still want to drink and use drugs, it creates an atmosphere where he can begin to cultivate a good dynamic and “plant a seed of prevention,” which are just thoughts of quitting and thinking about substance abuse from different angles.
However, Durdle said there are many students that want to change but don’t know how or where to start. This is where support groups, such as Insight and FullCircle, come into play.
“The biggest [thing] the groups provide is that accountability, that culture and that support within the school system that really, none of [the students] have had before at that point and time,” Durdle said.
Many of the support groups teach students how to have fun again and to relearn how to have a good time without the use of drugs and alcohol. Durdle said that he has seen 135 of his students attend support groups that discuss topics of positive peers, side effects of drugs and alcohol, family relationships and learning how to emotionally cope with hardships.
Abby Barreiro, 17, and a student at Forsyth Academy, gave her testimony, and there was not a dry eye in the work session when Barreiro said that she was six months sober. Barreiro said that she owed everything to Durdle and FullCircle, where she has been attending support groups.
FullCircle is a program that is centered around the idea of “enthusiastic sobriety,” which encourages young people to stop abusing drugs by providing fun alternatives that uplift their self-worth and are fulfilling.
“I am so much happier with who I am and with the actions I take every day,” Barreiro said. “I used to have a very bad relationship with my family, and I used to make a lot of terrible actions to make my connection to them a lot worse.”
Barreiro explained that when she was 14, she was expelled from all high schools in the state of Georgia for her first semester because of substance abuse. When she returned to school for the second semester of her freshman year, she started using again and did not stop until she transferred to Forsyth Academy, met Durdle and was introduced to FullCircle.
“It’s incredible how this has happened because I never thought I’d be this happy and healthy,” Barreiro said. “I believe that having people like Mitch in these schools and getting them help is so beneficial.”
Barreiro expressed how thankful she was for programs such as FullCircle in the county and that because of her hard work with Durdle and support groups, she now has “significantly improved” relationships with her mom, stepfather, siblings and friends.
Barreiro’s mother, Mary Huber, also spoke about her daughter’s experience and said that she was incredibly proud of her daughter for being 6 months sober.
“FullCircle at Insight, I know this might sound a little dramatic, but it has saved my child’s life,” Huber said. “And 6 months sober, that’s so impressive.”
Huber listed all of the avenues for help she tried the past three years including counselors, essential oils, exercise, church groups and more. But, nothing quite “clicked” for Barreiro like the FullCircle program and Durdle’s help at Forsyth Academy.
“My daughter’s able to connect with counselors and other students that want to be on the right track,” Huber said. “[Students] want to do the right thing, but they haven’t had an opportunity or a chance to speak with someone that actually understands them.”
Huber said that she was grateful for programs like FullCircle where students have a place to go where they can change and learn how to move forward and away from substance abuse.
After the presentation, Mills also told Barreiro that she was proud of her continued efforts, and she thanked Meyer, Hayes and Durdle for their hard work in the county.
Sheriff Ron Freeman expressed his support as well, stating that as a father himself, he believed in early intervention programs and was thankful for programs like Insight and FullCircle in the county. Before he spoke, he gave Barreiro a fist-bump and told her he was “so proud” of her.
“The BOE, the BOC, and the sheriff’s office – tell me something better we could be doing with our money,” Freeman said. “Tell me something better we can do that makes a difference because I promise you, I’d much rather be getting a fist-bump from [Barreiro] right here than I would be having a conversation with her behind bars.”
Commissioners were all in favor of continuing to authorize a three-year term resolution to extend what is currently in place between the Board of Commissioners, the Board of Education and the Sheriff’s Office. The board also unanimously voted in favor of Mills and District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent to research and explore the possibility of expanding early intervention efforts to other high schools in Forsyth County.