In 2005, Jennifer Knight was one of the vivacious Franklin High School Girls Ice Hockey Captains. At the time, Girls Hockey was a club sport and Jenn was leading the effort to make it a varsity sport.
Jenn and her teammates appeared before the Franklin School Committee with their appeal. At the time, Representative Jeffrey Roy (D- Franklin) was the School Committee Chair. Working together, the girls and School Committee worked together to make it happen, and the varsity girl’s hockey program has thrived at Franklin High.
Ten years later, Jenn reconnected with Roy on another effort that needed community attention. Roy was now a State Representative and Jenn was pursuing a doctoral degree in community psychology in San Diego, California.
She told Rep. Roy that he has recently returned to Franklin, and was astonished to hear the heartbreaking stories of those struggling with heroin addiction in the community. Since she returned four of her classmates had died from heroin overdoses, and she was confident that this problem would not be subsiding if we do not address this as a community effort.
She urged the creation of a warm, kind, and sustainable education platform for this matter. Specifically, she envisioned a support system that would create a container for people to come together to grieve and then, to heal.
Rep. Roy had recently been contacted by a constituent who had lost her son to substance abuse disorder, and he too was looking for a way to address the problem.
Rep. Roy and Jenn met to come up with a plan to form a coalition and identify community members who could help. They held their first meeting in February at Franklin’s Hockomock YMCA. This meeting included substance abuse counselors, parents, police, physicians, and YMCA staff. Each participant left with a mission to identify others and get back together soon.
Over the next two months, our community saw another rash of overdoses and deaths. The coalition enlisted help from Franklin Town Councilor Robert Dellorco and Town Administrator Jeff Nutting, and in May, Franklin’s Town Council held a community conversation on the topic. This meeting included Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, Rep. Roy, Franklin Police Chief Steve Semerjian, and several of his officers.
It was a thoughtful discussion, but at the same time, it was unsettling to see the damage that substance abuse was wreaking havoc on people and their families; those who struggle daily with the disease of addiction.
No community is immune from this crisis, but there are multi-faceted ways to address it. Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey has taken the lead in establishing coalitions throughout Norfolk County and was happy to lend his resources to Franklin’s efforts to build its coalition. All agreed that we had lost too many lives to this disease and our community leaders had decided that “enough was enough”.
The coalition’s next meeting featured a panel discussion held on June 30th. Over 200 residents attended. It was immediately evident that residents were concerned and looking for solutions.
“Franklin is not unique in terms of this problem,” Roy said, after the forum. The problem of substance abuse disorder knows no socioeconomic or geographical boundaries.
A board of incorporators was established following that meeting and $50,000 was included in the State budget at the urging of Rep. Roy, Sen. Karen Spilka, and Sen. Richard to assist the coalition’s efforts.
A second public forum was held at the Franklin High School auditorium where Dr. Kelly, a Harvard professor and leading expert in the neurobiology of addiction gave a presentation, followed by a panel discussion with experts in the field. Almost 300 residents turned out for this program.
Most recently, the coalition’s Board of Incorporators elected a Board of Directors and the Coalition was renamed to SAFE (Support for Addicts and Families through Empowerment). Rep. John Fernandes (D – Milford) joined the board and the Coalition was expanded to include the towns of Milford, Mendon, Hopedale and Medway. The board adopted the following mission statement.
“S.A.F.E. is a coalition of community partners who have come together to provide support, education, treatment options, and coping mechanisms for those affected by substance abuse disorder. We do so by empowering those affected, including their families, with the tools necessary to succeed on their journey to recovery. We understand that while I can’t, we can.”
S.A.F.E. brings together key community sectors to collaborate; law enforcement, educators, health care professionals, clergy, civic organizations, public officials, business leaders, media, students, people for the recovery community and citizens. As Chief Semerjian noted, “This is a community problem. We cannot arrest our way out of it.” We must instead focus on prevention, education, reducing stigma and eliminating barriers to treatment.
This is a public health crisis that demands our full attention and effective solution based strategies. Currently, there are more than 40 people serving on the board of advisors. The board meets monthly and continues to work diligently to bring programs that will offer support, education and solutions to our community.