By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
Over the years, this hardscrabble little town nestled among the hills and mountains of southeastern Kentucky has been beset by some unwelcome publicity about political corruption, poverty and drug use.
But over the last nine years or so, it has also come to be known as the “City of Hope.”
Friday, local leaders unveiled a “Wall of Hope” in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Operation UNITE, the drug education, treatment and enforcement agency founded by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. That portable “wall” is covered with photos of those who have survived drug addiction, sought treatment and turned their lives around.
But the mood was more one of salvation and deliverance than just of simple hope in the face of despair.
During the past decade, UNITE has turned around the lives of so many who had succumbed to the despair of drug addiction.
“For the first time in a decade, drug overdose deaths declined last year in Kentucky,” Rogers told more than 200 people at the Eastern Kentucky University extension campus here. One might be forgiven for thinking he was singing to the choir — for in a way he was.
Among those 200 were many who have survived the ravages of pain-pill addiction, escaped a life spiraling out of control or toward prison or death and now are productive citizens. Parents and children of those who didn’t survive, as well as prosecutors, ministers, business people and law enforcement officers also were present.
Rogers said it was fitting the ceremony was conducted here, where nine years ago the community came together, 3,500 strong, marching through their streets with signs saying they’d come to “take our community back” from the drug lords and addiction.
That led to Manchester’s being called “The City of Hope.”
Rogers told them the Clay County coroner recently informed him that drug overdose deaths — which in Kentucky now exceed the number of deaths from vehicle crashes each year — had declined by 50 percent in the past three years.
“So what you’re doing is working,” said Rogers.
Rogers praised the volunteers and staff of UNITE — Unlawful Narcotics Intervention, Treatment and Education — which he founded. He sang the praises of a hometown boy, state Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, who helped lead the fight to pass House Bill 1 to crack down on “pill mill” clinics and fund more treatment for the victims of drug abuse.
Over 10 years, UNITE has helped “put 4,000 pushers in jail;” paid for 3,000 vouchers to pay for drug treatment for those who can’t afford it; diverted 3,300 drug offenders into the highly successful drug court process; and the best news of all, Rogers said: “200 babies have been born drug-free.”
So there was joy and celebration but there were tears as well.
John and Nancy Hale, both career educators, told of the horrors of dealing with a drug-addicted son. John Hale said both of his sons were great kids, never missing a day of school and never earning less than an A on report cards, both of them starring in football at Rockcastle County.
But the younger son, Josh, suffered a shoulder injury that required three surgeries in 16 months and he became addicted to pain medication.
There followed “nine years that were the hardest and most painful of our lives,” Nancy Hale said, sometimes stopping to regain control of her voice or to wipe away tears.
“You can either curl up and die emotionally or you can choose life,” she said, after nothing she and her husband did seemed to help their younger son. “If that meant life without our son, then we would choose life.”
Her husband told of the day he told his son he had three choices: “You can get help; you can get arrested; or you can die. But we’re ready for whatever it is you choose.”
A month later, their son again sought treatment, and this time succeeded and returned to college, completing his degree. He then graduated from Mercer College Law School and is married and successful.
At one point, Rogers asked for anyone in the room who had completed the UNITE treatment program to raise their hands, and dozens did.
A group of young men from a treatment center — Chad’s Hope Center, named for a deceased son by his bereaved father — walked to risers in front of the veiled Wall of Hope as a man sang, “Thank God, I’m Saved.”
They held signs on one side of which they wrote something that told of their lives of drug addiction (one read “Needle Junkie”) and then reversing the sign, they showed what their lives had become (“Jesus Junkie”).
Later they helped Rogers pull back the curtain concealing the Wall of Hope. There in photo after photo were smiles of achievement, looks of hope on the faces of those who’d survived the scourge of drug addiction.
“The people on this wall were doomed to the obituary pages of the newspaper,” said Rogers. “Instead, many of them are here today and alive and well.”
There on that wall, in those faces, were all the reasons anyone in Manchester needed Friday to call this place a City of Hope.