BRANDON — Once was not enough. That’s what local organizers thought about the first showing of “The Hungry Heart,” a powerful 2013 documentary film highlighting the opiate addiction crisis in Vermont.
“Everyone was so overwhelmed,” said Brandon Town Clerk Sue Gage of the April 30 screening at Otter Valley Union High School. “I called a few people and said, ‘We need to keep this conversation going.’”
So Gage, Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell, Brandon Recreation Director Bill Moore, Brandon Selectman Devon Fuller, Brandon Boys and Girls Club Board Chair Christy Gahagan and several others planned another showing of “The Hungry Heart.” It is set for Tuesday, June 10, at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall, with a public forum the following night, June 11, from 6-8 p.m. at the Brandon Congregational Church Fellowship Hall.
Following the movie will be a Q&A session with Jessica Farnsworth from the West Ridge Treatment Center in Rutland and Mary Alice McKenzie, executive director of the Burlington Boys and Girls Club.
The public forum will be moderated by Bernie Carr and will feature seven different discussion areas, with the goal of producing an action plan for the community.
“The Hungry Heart” is directed by Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien and chronicles the struggles of St. Albans pediatrician Dr. Fred Holmes as he tries to treat several of his patients suffering from prescription drug addiction. The film also profiles some older addicts who went through rock bottom, recovery, relapse and recovery again.
The reason the film is so riveting and thought-provoking is that every town in Vermont has been touched by addiction in the last decade. Everyone seems to know someone affected by drug addiction. While Vermont’s drug problem has expanded since the film was made in 2012-13 to include the fast re-emergence of cheap heroin, the issue of addiction remains as serious as ever.
For Gage, it’s also personal. She is the mother of two daughters in their 20s with friends who have died from drug addiction. Gage said she feels the enormity of the problem.
“It’s really a pervasive issue,” she said. “People have died, people have been robbed … It affects the entire community. It’s just huge. We’re losing an entire generation, or two. The community had to respond in some manner. That’s what the forum is about.”
That’s also why Gage and Brickell sought to include different facets of the community, including medical professionals, students and others.
“Once you see the film, it immediately sparks thoughts and conversations,” Brickell said. “So, we thought if we had a forum the next day, it would give people a chance to actually have a discussion and see what kind of strategy they could come up with to deal with this issue.”
Since Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State address in January highlighted the state’s drug crisis, followed by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Judiciary Committee Field Hearing on the issue in Rutland in April, some say there has been some progress. Rutland County now has in place the Rapid Intervention Program, which is based on a Chittenden County program at work for the last several years. It seeks to offer non-violent drug offenders the option of treatment instead of prison time.
“People being (arrested on drug-related charges) are now being screened and put into treatment,” Brickell said. “They look at the person and their circumstances of the arrest and if they are suitable, they try to push that person into treatment. It’s a voluntary program, but it’s a real opportunity for someone who wants treatment, to get it.”
But Brickell said the forum in Brandon is not designed to get people together to share their experiences with addiction-related issues.
“It’s to come up with ideas from the medical community and others to help curb the tide here,” Brickell. “If that means engaging the medical community more to be more careful about who they’re prescribing to, great.”
The forum will be divided into seven categories: Addiction, Treatment and Recovery, Education, Cost and Resources, Prevention, Communication/Outreach, and Other. Participants will rotate from table to table, spending five minutes at each station, brainstorming ideas under the topic at hand.
Chief Brickell is hoping that the forum is as well attended as the film screening.
“My hope is that we do come up with new and different ideas, not just for law enforcement, but for families, doctors and to help people feeling safe in their homes,” he said. “It could be that someone comes up with a great idea we just haven’t thought of before.”
Gage said since she became town clerk in March, she has felt an even stronger need to help her town in the face of the drug crisis.
“We’re seeing it in our backyard and it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I just feel like we need to do something. It touches all aspects — church, work, home. It touches my life, even more now as the town clerk, because I feel a kinship with people in the community.”
For more information, contact Sue Gage at 247-3635 or [email protected].