The West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission (WVSSAC), MVB Bank, and several other institutions announced Tuesday an initiative to help combat the opioid crisis in West Virginia.

With the Mountain State leading the nation in opioid-related deaths, the initiative, dubbed the WVSSAC-MVB Bank Opioid Awareness Summit, will work to raise awareness on the epidemic and offer possible solutions.

“We can no longer stand idly by and watch this terrible epidemic destroy our young people and tear our families apart,” WVSSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan said.

In addition to the WVSSAC and corporate partner MVB Bank, the summit’s partners include West Virginia University, Marshall University, the West Virginia Department of Education and the office of Gov. Jim Justice.

The summit will consist of separate two-day meetings, the first on Sept. 17 at the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown and the second on Sept. 18 at Marshall’s Cam Henderson Center in Huntington.

According to a WVU press release, this first-of-its-kind event will feature former NBA player Chris Herren, who was addicted to opioids, along with Rhonda Sciortino, who overcame abandonment, abuse, poverty, filth and hunger while growing up in an addictive household to build a life of affluence.

Negotiations are currently under way with other speakers who address the prevention aspect of fighting the opioid epidemic.

“The summit will serve as a kickoff to an extensive initiative focusing on prevention coupled with compassionate treatment programs and educational and employment opportunities,” the release stated.

WVU officials called the prevention aspect of the initiative the most important component, as it will center on West Virginia’s 150,000 middle school and high school students, both public and private.

The state will be divided along Route 50, with 7,000 high school students north of Route 50 attending the Morgantown Summit and 7,000 students south of the highway attending the Huntington Summit.

The events will be streamed live to approximately 136,000 middle school and high school teenagers. In all, counting teachers, parents, siblings and all others who have contacts with students, summit organizers hope to reach more than 300,000 people.

As part of the kickoff, a campaign titled “Be a Game Changer” will be initiated, along with “West Virginia Teens Are Changing the Game.” A website for the campaign is currently being developed, officials said.

Teenagers, along with every citizen in the state, will be asked to go to the website and become a “game changer.” Items such as posters, Game Changer T-shirts and stickers proclaiming “I’m A Game Changer” will be given away.

Teens throughout the state will be encouraged to monitor the website, WVU officials said. While doing so, they will have the opportunity to win game and gift cards and other items of interest. The entire Game Changer Program is currently being developed and will be up and running in conjunction with the beginning of the initiative in September.

“I can’t begin to adequately thank Marshall University, West Virginia University, Dr. Steven Paine, Diana Whitlock and Susan Beck and the West Virginia Department of Education along with our corporate partner MVB Bank for helping us put together this collaborative event,” Dolan said.

“In addition, because of our lack of knowledge regarding opioid addiction, this entire initiative wouldn’t even be possible without the guidance of all the prevention and addiction specialists and counselors around the state who have provided us with priceless guidance. People like Amy Saunders at Marshall and Frankie Tack and Cathy Yura at WVU not to mention Nikki Tennis and her staff of prevention specialists,” Dolan added.

Both West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee and Marshall President Jerome A. Gilbert attended the news conference to support the effort and praised the initiative.

Gee said WVU has made battling the opioid epidemic a major focus at the institution, and added that programs and research are under way in essentially every college at the university from medicine to psychology, to counseling and beyond.

“Our young people are the future of this state and we have to do everything in our power to ensure they are given an opportunity to succeed,” Gee said.

Gilbert said he was interested in the concept of reaching kids earlier by providing prevention programs.

Gilbert said he feels the summit can help complement many of the prevention efforts happening around the state, and school-related activities are a great protective factor that can be used to buffer against the negative effects felt by many youths who have been affected by substance misuse in their family.

“At Marshall University, we have been working with partners over the past several years to tackle this issue which impacts the very core values of West Virginia society,” Gilbert said. “The summit will be a great kick-off event to launch the program and prevention efforts that will be coming over the next year. We look at this new initiative as a tremendous opportunity and are very happy to be a part of it.”

West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine said today’s students have many social and economic challenges.

“The opioid crisis has hit West Virginia especially hard, and we must take every step possible to keep students safe and healthy so they can reach their highest potential,” he said.

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