Rotary clubs come together to fight opioid epidemic

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Rotary club harnesses international connections to tackle U.S. opioid crisis

Clubs in Mexico, India, and Canada help Rotary members in New York launch project

By Ryan Hyland

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. 

  • 130.00+

    people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses in the U.S.

  • 11.00 mil

    people have abused prescription opioids in 2016

  • 47000.00 +

    people died from overdosing on opioids in 2017 

  • 9000.00 +

    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 Rotary clubs in Canada and India agreed to help, too. 

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. 

“We want to help produce the next generation of role models,” says Rouff. “We exceeded our expectations on this front.”

Jo Ann Wickman, a project lead and member of the Rotary Club of Cortland, New York, USA, has worked in social work and education for more than 25 years and was a grant coordinator for the project. She was impressed with the students’ experience at the teen institute. “It was really incredible how much they learned and what they said they wanted to accomplish,” she says. “It was a powerful program.”

Participating clubs led a broad public-awareness campaign with critical information, such as the signs and symptoms of abuse, and resources like 2-1-1, the local hotline for prescription drop boxes. Rotary members designed, produced, and distributed more than 60,000 informational flyers, brochures, and postcards in their communities. 

“We put them up everywhere we could,” Wickman says, which included schools, municipal buildings, medical and legal offices, churches, and Rotary meeting locations. Teachers even enclosed the materials with students’ report cards and other mailings to parents.

The project grant also funded online ads, social media campaigns, and local TV and radio spots that listed ways community residents can help mitigate the opioid crisis and its devastating consequences. Club members created a Facebook page and YouTube ads as well.

The clubs also directed funds to the Addiction Center of Broome County to help pay for medical and administrative supplies, transportation vouchers to get patients to the clinic, and three drop boxes for safe disposal of prescription drugs. Each month, the police department collects and incinerates the unused drugs.