Rotary clubs harness international connections to tackle U.S. opioid crisis
Clubs in Mexico, India, and Canada help members in New York launch community project
New York Rotary members used support from international partners to help them fight a major U.S. problem: opioid addiction.
After attending a wrenching funeral for a young man who died from an opioid overdose, Lana K. Rouff, a member of the Rotary Club of Binghamton, New York, USA, knew she had to do something.
“It was awful,” says Rouff. “I was so shaken by the shock and sadness at the funeral. The experience really stuck with me but also sparked me to do something.”
Rouff immediately talked with her fellow members, as well as other local clubs, about how they could alleviate the crisis in their communities in central and southern New York.
After months of doing research and consulting with health officials, substance abuse experts, educators, and media professionals, they had a plan: a Rotary Foundation global grant project, totaling more than $107,000.
The project’s initiatives would support those directly affected by the epidemic, educate communities about preventing and treating opioid addiction, and prevent drug abuse among local young people by training them in leadership skills and healthy decision making.
people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses in the U.S.
people have abused prescription opioids in 2016
people died from overdosing on opioids in 2017
people died in Canada between 2016-18 from opioid-related deaths
But they still needed one more thing to meet The Rotary Foundation’s requirements and secure the funding — international partners.
Rouff again turned to Rotary's 1.2 million members in 35,000 clubs around the world. She found the support they needed.
A Rotary club in Mexico was the first to volunteer, and then a Rotary club in Canada. Also the Rotary clubs of Coimbatore Central and Madras Coramandel of India donated significant funds to keep the project going.
Harnessing international support
Finding people outside of the U.S. to help with a predominantly American problem wasn’t easy, says Rouff.
“It wasn’t out of indifference to a problem in the U.S.,” says Rouff. “There just isn’t a strong understanding outside the country of how bad the opioid crisis really is.”
It took six months of searching before Rouff’s club connected with the Rotary Club of Tijuana Oeste, Baja California, Mexico. Sofia Sotomayor Magana rallied her fellow members to be the project’s international sponsor because she believed it was important to show support for their northern neighbors.
Some in the Mexican club were hesitant, telling Sotomayor Magana that their resources and money should be allocated to local issues such as poverty and poor health care. But Sotomayor Magana persuaded them that it’s sometimes better to give than to receive.
“We have an opportunity to help clubs in the U.S. make an impact on this horrible epidemic,” she says. “We know that this crisis can happen anywhere and can devastate any community. We see how bad it’s gotten. I’m proud we were able to get this important project off the ground.”
The Rotary Club of Mississauga-Meadowvale, Ontario, Canada, also contributed funds and support to the project. Member Claudine LaRochelle says that the opioid crisis isn’t confined to the U.S.; provinces in Canada are also affected. Opioid-related overdoses killed 9,000 Canadians from 2016 to 2018. These overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Canadians ages 30-39.
“When thinking of international assistance, we often think of countries far away from us, but help is also well-used when the crisis hits close to home,” says LaRochelle.
Providing information and tools
Today’s opioid crisis is the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each day more than 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses, and millions more struggle with addiction. Since 2011, drug deaths in the U.S. have outpaced those caused by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide, or homicide. In New York, it’s the leading cause of accidental deaths.
Children and teens are not exempt from the crisis — nearly a quarter of U.S. high school seniors have had some exposure to prescription opioids — but they are the best targets for education and prevention, Rouff says.
Over the past year and a half, the global grant funded a series of weekend seminars that brought together nearly 50 high school students from 11 schools. They gathered at the Heart of New York Teen Institute in Syracuse, New York, to gain the knowledge and confidence that will help them lead drug-free lives and the leadership skills to educate their peers about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
"It gives me hope that projects like this can happen across the country. Rotary has the resources and know-how to tackle this problem. Nothing is too big for us." — Jo Ann Wickman, Rotary Club of Cortland, New York, USA
Hope for the future
In their research for the project, Rouff and Wickman went on a “listening tour” across central and southern New York, visiting Rotary members who have been affected by opioids.
The first lesson from the harrowing stories they heard: The epidemic affects families of every ethnic background and socio-economic standing. “Rich or poor, we saw it all,” says Rouff.
“I must admit that this hasn’t been my favorite experience,” Wickman says. “We worked with folks who have lost children and other family members. It was really heartbreaking.”
The two project leaders did some talking, too, recruiting members to get involved with their initiatives. Given the stigma associated with drug use, Wickman expected to encounter some resistance. “But just the opposite is happening,” she says. “They are eager and willing to get involved. It gives me hope that projects like this can happen across the country. Rotary has the resources and know-how to tackle this problem. Nothing is too big for us.”
Rouff acknowledges that the opioid addiction epidemic has no simple solutions. “But if the project can save one life, it’s worth it.”