Just say no. The now decades-old slogan of a past anti-drug campaign is a rallying cry to end substance abuse — and Newton High School senior Lauren Mitchell has done more than just say no, recently partnering with local law enforcement on a project aimed at getting drugs out of citizens' homes.
Mitchell was aware of the Drug Take Back Day program to collect old, unused medications coordinated through the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and was also informed of a similar program run by the Harvey County Sheriff's Office in years past, which led her to approach current Sheriff Chad Gay about joining in the DEA's initiative this year — scheduled for Oct. 28.
"She wanted to do something, a community service type thing, to give back to the community, and I was more than happy to help her," Gay said.
"This year and last year, I got involved in Youth as Resources, and we really focus on prevention and just making a difference in youths' lives," Mitchell said. "This just coincided with the work that we do and it was something that I could take on to help the community out. I'd also heard lots of need from the community in regards to 'what can we do with our prescription medication?'"
While Gay said he was not actively seeking to restart a drug take back program — which was last operated a couple of years ago under former Sheriff T. Walton before inventory requirements forced him to end it (due to limited staffing) — he was more than receptive to the idea brought forward by Mitchell. The DEA take back days are organized twice each year, in the fall and the spring, and Gay noted he is open to continuing participation and including the involvement of Newton or other area high school students. His endorsement of the program was solidified once he saw the turnout from the community.
Gay coordinated with the DEA for the resources to collect the drugs (which were ultimately transported to St. Louis to be incinerated) while Mitchell worked to spread the word about the county's participation — hanging flyers, posting on social media, etc.
Both questioned just how many would show up to drop off their unused drugs on the official take back day, and Gay admitted he even thought the DEA had sent too many boxes (six) for collection, but any doubts about participation were eliminated very quickly.
Scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 28, citizens were already stopping into the sheriff's office to drop off drugs at 9:30 the morning of the event. While Gay initially set up four of the boxes sent by the DEA, the sixth box was already filled by the time the program was officially set to begin. Once the office finally stopped accepting drugs (at 2:30 p.m.), nearly twice as many boxes had been filled — more being provided by Mitchell's mother and First Bank — with a total of 440 pounds of drugs collected.
"I remember thinking, 'wow, (six boxes), that's a little overkill, isn't it?' The volume of it was insane," Gay said. "I really underestimated the need for our community to have that. People were very thankful and receptive to it."
Giving community members that chance to turn in unused medication was just part of the reasoning behind the take back day, as both Gay and Mitchell noted.
Collecting those drugs was key, especially with the growing issues of opioid usage, but Mitchell noted it was also important for them to be handled and processed through the proper channels.
"It's not only getting the controlled substances out of people's hands, but also just safe disposal of medications in general — just not dumping it down the drain or anything like that," Mitchell said.
Along with her efforts through YAR, Mitchell is also a member of the Interact Club (a branch of Rotary) at NHS, participating in other service projects like the holiday food drive last year and some — like a fundraising campaign for the homeless shelter — she has even taken on individually.
Following the turnout for the drug take back day, with at least 100 people showing up to turn in amounts ranging from a couple of vials to backpacks full, both Gay and Mitchell noted they were convinced to double down on their efforts in the future.
"It was important to me just to see that response. It really makes me want to do things like this again, even when it is a simple service; people really do appreciate it and you are making a difference, even if in a small way," Mitchell said. "Even if it is just making a small difference, I really do think community service is really valuable."