By Kelsey Trotter
Eliminating Anonymity to Eliminate the Stigma of a Disease
Sometimes all it takes is a person with a passion to make a real difference. Julie Edwards had a family member who struggled with a substance use disorder. Julie searched high and low but had a hard time finding help for her family. With limited resources, she decided to create them herself and founded the West Linn Community Task Force in 2010.
Then in 2015, with unanimous community consensus, she was told to enlist Pam Pearce to take over the organization. Pam accepted, and knowing that the concerns were bigger than just her city, she, her board, and students renamed the organization Community Living Above.
Pam used her passion to exponentially grow the organization. You see, Pam has been in recovery for 24 years. That’s right, 24! This is something to celebrate, however, sometimes people keep their recovery a secret. Pam doesn’t believe in being anonymous,
“As a person in long-term recovery, I have always shared my story. I have been in recovery since I was young and have never been anonymous. This is my reality and I don’t find shame or stigma in it.”
She hopes her story will encourage others to do the same and to seek help - the earlier the better.
Having a substance use disorder (SUD) is a problem that no one wants, yet so many struggle with every day, and almost every family has a story. The goal of the organization is to prevent SUD’s and bring awareness and education to youth and families. “Prevention is the cure to substance use disorders in a perfect world. But until we get there, prevention also needs to be letting people know where to go for help when they need it and typically that looks like a crisis,” says Pam. Most recently Pam brought the documentary, Generation Found, to her community and she and a team of others started the process of bringing the first recovery high school and alternative peer groups to Oregon. The alternative peer group, Family Inspired Recovery, opened in May, and Harmony Academy will open this September.
Community Living Above also works with the local school district to support teens in bringing awareness to substance use disorders and mental health concerns and providing prevention education and ways to support themselves and peers. “The support from our community, board members, and the youth is humbling. Because most people have a story, finding a safe environment to share those stories is what ultimately brings hope and healing,” says Pam.
Each month, the organization hosts a lunch at West Linn High School. The lunch acts as a safe space to share thoughts and ideas about SUD prevention and ways to share information with friends, family, and the community. Sometimes they have a speaker, many times they go around the room and share what’s on their minds, or things they are experiencing in their community.
“Every month I wonder if anyone will show up, then 50-75 kids walk through the door,” says Pam. The organization has grown from roughly 40 kids to over 200. Community Living Above creates an environment where students and families can talk about substance use disorders and begin healing. By creating a conversation with youth, they hope to destigmatize the disease and give youth the tools to understand why having the information and understanding the realities will be their best defense. Research indicates that as much as 50% of a person’s genetics determine being predisposed to having an SUD and the other 50% is our environment. It’s important that the youth know this so they can protect themselves in the half they can control.
Pam concludes with encouraging words she often shares with students, youth, and families: “It’s going to be okay. The first step of saying out loud what we think makes us different – and seems to be the hardest. Perfection does not exist and in simple terms, imperfection is what makes us human. Embrace who you are, be vulnerable – it is there that we find our strength.” Pam and Community Living Above know, believe, and live this.
Community Living Above was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
Prior to joining the Addiction Policy Forum as the Coordinator of Digital Marketing and Public Relations, Kelsey was the communications fellow at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Kelsey is passionate about storytelling and brings her creativity and effective communication skills to her work at Addiction Policy Forum. Kelsey received her Bachelors degree from Michigan State University and moved to Washington, DC to leave a positive impact on the world.