By Sean Barron
When she joined Disciples Christian Church in 1979, Dottie Johnson was dealing with a lot of emotional pain.
“I was hurting. Their love and support made me feel I was worthwhile,” the Boardman resident recalled.
Such acceptance, combined with better access to social services and removing certain stigmas, can go a long way toward helping those with drug problems, mental-health needs and other challenges, noted Johnson, who retired in 2008 after having worked 30 years as an office manager for the Doris Burdman Home on Youngstown’s North Side.
That was one of the main themes of Sunday’s community forum at the church, 565 Boardman-Canfield Road, aimed at addressing present and future social issues and concerns in the township and the Mahoning Valley. About 40 residents attended the two-hour session, “Voices of the Valley,” which featured a panel of law-enforcement and mental-health officials.
Panelists were Judge Lou D’Apolito of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court; Jack Nichols, Boardman’s police chief; Maureen Drummond, executive director, HandsOn Volunteer Network of the Valley; Tom Arens, program director, Compass Community and Family Services; and Karen Kannel, a social worker with the Boardman School District.
Moderating the gathering was Doug Gaier, a church member.
Boardman remains a vibrant, changing community, but its biggest quality-of-life issue is the drug problem — especially heroin and opiates, Nichols explained, adding that simply arresting offenders is only part of the solution.
“It’s crippling our community,” he said, estimating that between 700 and 800 people in the Valley commit the bulk of crimes.
The chief advocated for greater group networking and suggested Disciples Church host groups dedicated to helping those with such problems, as well as people dealing with poverty.
To that end, Nichols said, he received additional training via the Bridge Out of Poverty program and wants to see his officers follow suit.
The program brings together people of all economic backgrounds to assist those moving from poverty in part by offering workshops on revitalizing neighborhoods, strengthening job skills, decreasing social costs associated with crime, and other methods.
Judge D’Apolito concurred, saying that he tries to find options and alternatives to incarceration for those with drug and mental-health problems.
Nevertheless, the court system has become a “catch-all” for many such people largely because budget cuts have forced some facilities to close, he continued.
Judge D’Apolito also pointed to the county’s drug court, which offers a one-year program that, if completed, allows many offenders to have their felony charges dismissed. Those who choose to continue on a destructive path, however, face dire consequences, the judge warned.
“I tell the kids before me that there are two options for drug addicts: prison or death,” he said, adding that education at home, in school and in church is vital.
Kannel, who’s served 21 years in the schools, noted that the district plans to implement drug-testing programs that don’t require parental permission. In addition, she said, drug-prevention and intervention, anger-management, child-care, study-skills and adult-education programs are in place.
Arens noted that his agency seeks employers willing to hire those with mental-health challenges and drug problems. Many, though, face the added burden of stigmatization, so a better understanding of the brain’s complicated biochemistry also is important, he continued.
High-profile mass shootings also contribute to the public’s unfairly painting those with mental illness with too broad a brush, Arens pointed out. In truth, the vast majority of shooters are not receiving treatment, he said.
Simply doing volunteer work one hour a week can go a long way toward keeping a community strong and vibrant. It also instills good values in young people and encourages them to see the importance of giving back, Drummond explained.
Volunteers are needed for the Ohio Benefits Bank to help people acquire greater financial stability and responsibility. Also, others will need assistance signing up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, before next Monday’s deadline, she continued.
Also brought up was the problem of easy access many young people have to firearms.
“There’s no need for private citizens to have military-style weapons at home,” Judge D’Apolito said, adding that he supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms.