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Program gives teens a platform to push back against addiction

MIDDLEBURY — Actor Jeremy Holm was driving from a gig in Stowe to his Vergennes home last September when his radio popped with some news he couldn’t ignore.
It was a story about the police chief in East Liverpool, Ohio, who had posted a photo on Facebook depicting two adult heroin addicts passed out in front seats of their vehicle, with their 4-year-old boy asleep in the backseat.
“The chief put that picture up because he needed help,” Holm recalled. “He said, ‘You can’t arrest yourself out of this problem.’”
It’s a message that individual police chiefs in Addison County have reiterated as the local court docket becomes increasingly flooded with drug-related cases.
Holm — whose acting resumé includes roles in the Robert Downey Jr. film “The Judge” and on the much-acclaimed Netflix television series “House of Cards” — decided he wanted to lend his time, skills and passion to reversing the disturbing trend of drug addiction, particularly among youth. So he called the United Way of Addison County to partner on a program that would specifically speak to high school-age students about the dangers of heroin.
He found a willing partner in Jesse Brooks, the United Way’s regional prevention coordinator for Addison County. Together, they will launch a program next month called “Heroin Epidemic Learning Program (HELP)” at Middlebury, Vergennes and Mount Abraham union high schools aimed at raising awareness among teens.
It’s a completely voluntary, eight-week program that will include guest speakers from the medical, recovery and law enforcement communities — as well as some folks who have had direct exposure to the physical and emotional ravages of heroin addiction. Confirmed speakers as of Monday included Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel and Vergennes physician Dr. Tim Bicknell.
But participating students won’t just be listening to speakers; they will be called to action.
They’ll be asked to break into teams to produce public service announcements to raise awareness about addiction. The winning PSA will earn a $1,000 cash prize to be shared among the team. There will also be two, $500 runner-up prizes.
“You’re giving students education on heroin, and they are getting it first-hand from different representatives,” Brooks said. “But they are also getting the other side of this, which is some real hands-on experience with video. The creative piece of this is really enticing to them.”
Students will be given great creative license in devising their respective PSAs.
“You can say what you like, as long as it is FCC-approved, legal and safe,” Holm said.
The HELP course involves a commitment of only one hour per week for the students. Mount Abe and VUHS will allow their participants to substitute HELP for another course in their schedule. At MUHS, the program will be woven within the Digital Storytelling Class.
Brooks has been impressed with the amount of students who have already been asking for HELP.
A recent unveiling of the program — without confirmation of the cash prizes — drew 18 sign-ups at Mount Abe and 10 at VUHS, according to Brooks. The HELP program can accommodate up to 25 students per high school, and there’s still time to register.
Organizers are running HELP on a shoestring budget, as Brooks found that heroin-related programming cannot qualify for available Regional Prevention Partnership Grant money. That’s because state and federal authorities don’t consider heroin to be a “gateway” drug, according to Brooks.
“Basically, if you can keep kids away from marijuana and binge drinking and prescription drug abuse, they generally believe you can avoid the heroin issue,” Brooks explained.
This means HELP will need some financial help from donors, and some have already stepped forward, Brooks said. Organizers are confident they’ll raise the program prize money, which is the only substantial expense of the offering; the speakers and Holm are all volunteering their time.
Brooks and Holm plan to be present for all of the HELP sessions.
“I want to be talking to the kids, encouraging them,” Holm said. “Their creativity is not yet bound up … They aren’t cynical yet. So their point of view is the resource. They are going to have fresh eyes and think of things that we haven’t thought of, visually. They are from a generation that is more used to image than our generation. I am really confident they are going to come up with some fascinating takes on how to get the word out about this problem.”
It’s a problem that Holm and his spouse have seen in the acting community. Holm is married to fellow actor Dawn Wagner; together they have two children, ages of 4 and 6.  The family had a friendship with fellow actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who ultimately lost his battle with addiction in in 2014. Detectives searching his apartment found heroin and prescription medications at the scene.
“He was a beautiful man, he was a great father and the most brilliant actor of his generation without a doubt, and (drugs) still got him,” Holm ruefully recalled.
HELP kicks off on Feb. 6. Anyone with questions about the program should call Brooks at 388-7189.
Organizers hope HELP will become an annual offering.
“This is really a test this year, a test I’m confident will have a very big impact,” Holm said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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