Wakeup call

After receiving bad news about eight years ago, Lion Scott Michels was struck by a moment of clarity that changed his life.
Michels, who’d been counseling troubled youth in his community of Wilmington, Delaware, had just learned that one of those young people had been arrested again.

“I was sitting in my basement, drinking, and wondering how this kid got locked up again,” he says. “It was a moment where a hand came down and slapped me in the face.”

Scott Michels fought addiction himself and now works to prevent young people from following the same difficult path.

Cradling a drink in his hand, it was impossible for Michels not to recognize the irony of the situation. How could he help others without owning up to his own alcoholism? This year Michels celebrates eight years of sobriety and he is still committed to helping young people avoid the pitfalls of addiction so that they can grow into healthy, confident adults.

K.O.P.E calls

When Bellafonte Lion Daniel Elkins reached out to Michels and invited him to join, Michels said a wholehearted ‘Yes’. He wanted to be a Lion, but he also wanted to become involved in the K.O.P.E. Cyber Lions Club, which stands for Knights of Prevention and Education -- a new online club geared to helping young people live drug-free lives, make healthy choices, and value service learning. The club’s goals also include changing the stigmas associated with substance abuse disorder.

“It’s an illness,” says Elkins, who helped found the club. “There’s a chemical change in the brain with addiction and you’re not the same afterwards.”

Elkins worked with Kimberly Haynes, a program development specialist for Lions Quest, which is focused on building social and emotional health for young people, to develop K.O.P.E.

“I thought it was a great way to engage Lions in an effort that hits home for a lot of people,” she says. An opioid epidemic has swept across the country in recent years, and no state or community has been untouched. “It crosses every demographic barrier, race, and class,” says Elkins. “It’s a scourge in my community but it also is affecting communities with money and people who have access to pills.”

Elkins, a drug prevention specialist at the Bellevue Community Center in Wilmington, specifically recruited people like Michels to join Lions because of their interest and work in substance abuse prevention. Elkins and Haynes both recognized the potential of Lions from across the country and globe to summon their talents and knowledge to help young people steer clear of drug and alcohol addiction, and to help educate other Lions interested in the cause.

“After becoming a Lion, I thought ‘What would happen if the world’s largest service organization became the world’s largest substance abuse prevention organization?” Elkins asks. The club was just chartered in March of this year and has 23 members including drug prevention educators, parents and researchers who hail from various states including Indiana, Illinois, California, and Florida.

No more secrecy

Elkins’ dedication to fighting substance abuse was inspired when he was working previously in the music industry and lost a friend to an overdose. “That changed my life. I’d seen too many people affected by this scourge,” he says. Elkins changed his career and, like Michels, became committed to changing many of the misperceptions about addiction including the shame associated with it.
Rather than being treated as the health problem it is, addiction is often shrouded in secrecy, which both Elkins and Michels find dismaying.

Michels believes that there are many people – parents, grandparents, spouses, or other family members -- who’ve experienced addiction either themselves or in their families or in their communities, and yet are reluctant or unsure about how to address it. “It’s like you’re fighting a life-ending disease and you’re not telling anyone about your problem. Not a medical professional, not your family or your friends,” Michels says. “Meanwhile there are other people in your own neighborhood who are also fighting the same battle, and they’re doing it alone, too.”

Shining a light in the dark

The Lions’ overall mission of service attracted Elkins and Michels, but they also knew their community and many others have pressing issues besides vision impairment. “The overwhelming darkness in my community isn’t vision impairment,” Elkins says. “It’s opioid addiction and substance abuse.”

The problem in Delaware is highlighted on the state’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health website, which keeps a running total of the number of deaths due to suspected overdoses. It is at 128 so far in 2020.

Delaware is a relatively small state, but its problem with addiction is significant. It is among the states with the highest rates of death due to drug overdose, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2018, Delaware, with a rate of 43.8 drug overdose deaths per 100,000, was outranked by only one other state, West Virginia, which had 51.5 deaths per 100,000.

Other states with high rates of substance abuse overdose deaths include Maryland (37.2 per 100,000), Pennsylvania (36.1 per 100,000), Ohio (35.9 per 100,000) and New Hampshire (35.8 per 100,000).

A new kind of club, a new kind of Lion

In the nation as a whole, the CDC reports there were 68,557 drug overdose deaths in 2018. Elkins’ dedication to shedding light on the problem of addiction is illustrated in Facebook video posts that show him with a friendly smile on his bearded face asking people to support and get involved in K.O.P.E. He is proud of the people who’ve joined the club and who see it as an opportunity to change lives.

“When people realized that Lions aren’t just interested in eyeglasses and pancakes, we began recruiting a whole new type of Lion,” Elkins says. “They are youth advocates.” Another K.O.P.E. member is Adam Underwood, also a prevention specialist at the Bellevue Community Center, who finds that being of service to others has had a crucial role in his own journey toward living substance-free.

Adam Underwood says being of service to others helps him stay sober.

“Finding positivity and being of service to others, and everything that comes with that, helps with addiction and behavioral health, and helps me maintain my purpose in life,” he says.

Underwood, 43, has developed his own coping mechanisms including meditation, prayer, and exercise that have helped him stay sober, and he wants to share those with young people. He believes that shaming young people doesn’t work and wants to find better ways to reach them.

“What’s always been said is that ‘Drugs are bad and you’re a bad person if you use them,’” he says. “But that’s not effective because some kids will rebel and do drugs as a result.”

Let the youth lead the way

Although it is only a couple months old, the club has already held virtual chats with Leos and is training young people to become drug prevention advocates among their peers.

Leos have created video public service messages that are posted on social media channels and Underwood says it’s exciting to see young people taking up the cause. “We can give them the facts and education and they can be the messengers. They can take the message to their peers,” he says.

The club created a coordinated social outreach plan for National Prevention Week, which was held May 10 – 16 to inspire action and prevent substance abuse and mental health disorders. The K.O.P.E. club and Leos also participated in a town hall meeting sponsored by the U.S. Drug Administration that focused on street drugs and tips to avoid them, and a webinar highlighting suicide prevention during the week. “Suicide is sometimes taken as a way out for people deeply affected by substance abuse,” Haynes notes.

The club is dedicated to addressing all types of substance abuse disorders including alcohol, pills, vaping, and smoking, as well as mental health issues. Mental health cannot be ignored because “you have to be aware of your own feelings to know if you might be abusing a substance because you’re depressed,” Elkins says.

The idea is spreading

The idea of creating a club that can be tailored to a particular community’s needs around substance abuse is appealing to Valerie Clarke, a member of the Channel Port aux Basques Lions Club in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, which is working toward founding a K.O.P.E. cyber club of their own. It already has 14 of the 20 members it needs to get started.

While the K.O.P.E. club in the U.S. is dedicated to addiction prevention and mental health, the club in Newfoundland and Labrador is adding anti-bullying to those concerns. As an advisor for Leos, Clarke often hears young people raising these issues. “A lot of time, kids will say to me, ‘Val, there’s so much drugs in our school or this person or that one got hurt because of bullying,” she says. She wants the needs of young people to be at the forefront. “They’ll have a voice and they’ll create the direction they want to go,” she says.

She believes encouraging youth to interact with their peers is the most effective way to keep young people from falling into addiction. “Youth talking to youth will have more of an impact than me standing at a podium making a presentation,” she says.

A new kind of knight

Elkins is heartened to know what Clarke wants to do to protect the young people in her community and believes there are many other Lions who feel the same.

“There are many parents and grandparents out there who don’t know what to do to help with this issue,” he says. “Giving them this way to help their communities is so important.”

Ever since Helen Keller implored Lions to become Knights of the Blind, Lions have taken up the cause of vision. Now, Elkins hopes Lions can answer a new call. “Lions are the sword and the shield that can protect our communities,” he says “We’re the knights of protection.”