County Executive Robert P. Astorino urged more than 400 students from across Westchester to become part of the solution in the life-and-death fight against opioid addiction on October 16.
Joined by BMX Olympic coach and recovering addict Tony Hoffman, the County Executive led a Youth Summit at the Westchester County Center aimed at fighting a drug epidemic that has caused a 200 percent increase in fatalities in Westchester from 2010-2015.
Students from 37 schools, including those from Harrison, Pelham, Rye Neck and New Rochelle, took part in the day-long summit that was part of the county’s Project WORTHY (Westchester County Opioid Response Teams Helping You) program launched earlier this year. The program mobilizes a full array of available resources and expertise to combat the growing opioid and heroin epidemic that affects all communities and people of all ages.
“Young people are dying,” Astorino said in his remarks. “This is not a show; this is not just a day-long assembly. This is serious business, and we need your help. Young people are on the front lines of this epidemic. You are eyewitnesses to what’s happening in schools, at parties, at the mall and on the bus. You come from all walks of life, and all kinds of neighborhoods. That’s the kind of real-life experience we need if we are ever going to wrap our arms around this deadly situation.”
The goal of the Youth Summit was to bring together students and have them come up with ideas on how to fight the epidemic in their own schools and neighborhoods.
Hoffman, the keynote speaker, spoke of his personal experiences, notably how poor choices and a bad attitude led to his addiction. He first smoked marijuana occasionally, which led to experimenting with more serious drugs such as Vicodin and OxyContin, and later heroin and crystal meth. Hoffman’s drug addiction caused him to lose friends and family and he eventually became homeless. He was so desperate for drugs at one point in his life that he committed an armed robbery and other drug related crimes that landed him in prison for several years.
“When I was 18, I had no idea I was about to become a heroin addict,” Hoffman said. “I had every single thing that you would need to be successful in life … There are no short-cuts in life; every short cut you take will end up being the long road.”
While in prison, Hoffman had a “spiritual awakening” and started to turn his life around. He set goals and embarked on a path that resulted in him becoming a BMX Elite pro who placed second in the 2016 World Championships and coached in the Rio Olympic Games that same year. He is currently the founder and director of The Freewheel Project, a not-for-profit that mentors young people through sports and teaches them leadership skills and to make healthy life choices. He is currently writing his first book, titled “Coming Clean.”
But even now and sober for more than 10 years, Hoffman said there are reminders of his past all around him.
“Every single day, the doorway wants to tempt me,” he said. “If you don’t walk through that door, you don’t have to worry about this.”
Project WORTHY is an extension of the county’s Safer Communities initiative, whose hallmark is to build comprehensive and practical solutions to difficult problems by integrating expertise and resources from across the county. As part of the effort, response teams are made up of health and mental health experts and providers, law enforcement professionals, parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, business executives and youth. Their role is to provide expertise in their respective fields in response to specific calls for help, and to conduct informational forums at schools, churches, temples, mosques, municipal meetings, civic associations, businesses and other groups.
The Youth Summit was part of ongoing events that operate from Project WORTHY’s four foundational blocks – education, integration, prevention and action – all of which bring together the resources necessary for each of those areas.
In addition to the keynote speaker at the Youth Summit, there was a panel of young adults who have been affected by opioid and heroin addiction, and two interactive workshops where students discussed ways they can stop or prevent abuse, and take back their schools.
To learn more, contact 914-995-5220 or email projectWORTHY@westchestergov.com.