By Sophia Ricco
Northport High School’s Students for 60,000 took their first ever service trip to West Virginia, the “ground zero of the opioid epidemic,” and came back with a cause to spread.
Twenty-four Northport high shcoolers embarked on the week-long trip during February break to give their time to food pantries and youth programs, connecting with the local high school and community members struggling with addiction along the way.
Students for 60,000 was originally founded in 1987 as a club dedicated to helping the homeless. It taks its name from the 60,000 homeless in New York City at the time, and has evolved to raise money and awareness for many causes.
“The mission of the program is pretty simple, it is to help those in need,” club adviser Darryl St. George said.
Student members are exposed to local and global issues alike through education and service. Since 1992, the club has taken service trips to the village of Chacraseca, Nicaragua. They also have anonymously assisted local families in need.
“That’s one of the values to Students for 60,000, we take our students outside of the bubble of Northport,” St. George said. “We take them to parts of the world, country and locally in the community that ordinarily they wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to.”
As Nicaragua grew more unstable, St. George was tasked with selecting a new location for the club’s biannual service trip. He felt West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the country, was a good choice.
“I came up with the trip to West Virginia, understanding the need that exists there,” St. George said. “But also recognizing that on a personal level, I had lost a sibling to an overdose and the opioid epidemic is a major piece of it.”
Students directly interacted with those impacted by opioid addiction in the town of Kermit, West Virginia. Hawkie, the town’s fire chief, recounted the story of finding his younger brother dead from an overdose at a potluck dinner. His message to the club: this is an issue that is only going to get worse if nothing is done.
“Something we always strive for with Students for 60,000 is the educational component, which as a teacher I have the responsibility to meet,” St. George said. “But on the other hand, there is action taking place and projects that the students are taking part in. It’s an experience that makes the learning more meaningful.”
The students had a full agenda of informational and impactful activities on the trip. They visited the Williamson Drug Treatment Center to learn about the center’s efforts, stigmas and benefits of treatment from healthcare professionals. The students then met with five women who shared personal experiences about addiction and recovery. The club then volunteered their time playing with children at an after school program, some of whom came from “heartbreaking backgrounds” and lost either one or both parents to overdoses.
“It was both inspiring and encouraging to witness the students ability to take on so many necessary tasks while simultaneously learning and quickly appreciating the need for their presence in this part of our country,” St. George said.
Returning from West Virginia, St. George reflected on the deeply poignant trip.
“My experience in West Virginia had a profound impact on my understanding of what it is to be an American,” St. George said. “We as a country right now are in a very precarious place. I think a lot of that has to do with the division in the country. If we’re gonna heal, I truly believe the answer is in this poor state, ground zero of the opioid epidemic, a place that is dismissed by both sides of the political spectrum.”
Even St. George, a military veteran who has experienced the world and personal tragedy, said he was not prepared for what he saw in West Virginia. The trip has given Students for 60,000 a “sense of urgency” to aid and raise awareness for the state.
“I can tell you with confidence, that coming home students and chaperones alike felt like we did a lot of good,” St. George said. “There was no question of why we needed to go down there, so much so that the students want to go back again.”
The community of Kermit is eager to have the club come back as well. Students for 60,000 plan to share their experiences in West Virginia at a Community Forum at the Northport Library on March 27 at 7 p.m. Club members will lead the presentation aimed at educating the community on a topic relevant to Long Island’s own substance abuse epidemic.
“We will help the community better understand what we learned and experienced there,” St. George said. “If they’re interested, we will provide them opportunities to support our mission of working in West Virginia.”