Since being organized in 2011, Project Lazarus in Surry County has exclusively attacked the growing problem of prescription drug abuse and misuse — and the overdose deaths it causes — but that’s changing.
The organization is refocusing its efforts to address other at-risk behavior, among young people in particular, which can lead to drug-related deaths. This also will include a new name for the community-based coalition of educators, medical personnel and others to better reflect its emphasis on protecting life overall.
“We need our name to reflect more than just medication misuse here in Surry,” explained Project Lazarus-Surry Coordinator Karen Eberdt, “as we also address marijuana, alcohol, distracted texting and will likely be adding additional topics as needed.”
Yet Eberdt was quick to add when recently discussing the change that the organization is not foregoing its core mission of battling opioid overdoses and educating local residents about that problem. As of Sept. 1, overdoses had claimed 17 lives in Surry so far in 2016, according to county Emergency Services Director John Shelton.
“We’re just expanding it…into other areas,” Eberdt said.
“It is definitely not dropped,” she reassured regarding the prescription drug emphasis.
The premise behind the broader focus is a realization that teens— one of the main groups targeted by the local coalition — face a unique set of challenges that previous generations have not, Eberdt said.
That includes at-risk behavior such as texting while driving, bullying via social media and other problems, according to the coordinator, who says the effort overall is trying to keep people from “going down a really dangerous route.”
Since heroin or prescription medication is not the first drug someone usually tries, Eberdt says the problem could start with marijuana — a substance surrounded by misconceptions.
“The perception of baby-boomer parents is that marijuana isn’t such a big deal,” the coordinator said. But she said that drug is much more potent today than in the past.
“We need to tackle some of those gateway things,” Eberdt said of preventing at-risk behavior. “We’re trying to cut this off at the knees.”
Shelton, the emergency services director, said recently that he agrees with the change in scope by Project Lazarus members.
“My understanding, from what I’m hearing, is they’re trying to address everything that will cause any type of addiction,” he said.
Highlighting lesser issues will help prevent youths from migrating toward deadlier drugs, and better educate them that “this is the path where it leads you to,” Shelton said.
Recreational drug use often is the start of major problems, he added.
One motivation behind the change is a move by Surry County Health and Nutrition Center, with which Eberdt is associated, to expand the “tool box” for youths and parents in addressing various risks.
A key step in that regard involves plans for a risk behavioral survey for Surry County students in conjunction with the start of the new school year.
Eberdt says the results of that survey will steer the coalition in the right direction as to where the greatest needs are, and help it develop a long-range action plan.
One goal is this process is opening up dialogue between youths and parents, since young people are less likely to stray into risky situations if they have such a relationship with the adults.
Eberdt also hopes to hold events for guest speakers to address identified needs.
Another reason for broadening the horizon of the Project Lazarus coalition is that it will create more opportunities for grants to fund various prevention initiatives locally.
“Please know that I am working just as hard as ever now with all of our school superintendents to enhance our prevention education for our students as well as families among many other things,” Eberdt stressed.
Project Lazarus normally holds regular meetings, although the schedule was halted during the summer.
The next meeting is set for Oct. 13 at noon at the Surry Community College facilities in Mount Airy, located behind Arby’s. Sheriff Graham Atkinson will be the guest speaker.
One of the orders of business is expected to be finalizing the name change for Project Lazarus, with suggestions that have emerged including Protect Life Surry or Project Life Surry.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.