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Students do their part to stem tide of drugs’ tragic toll

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Theresa Laird

As the number of drug-related accidental deaths, particularly those resulting from heroin, continues to rise in Erie County, four Mercyhurst University students are doing their part to help stem the tide. 

Mercyhurst public health majors Renata Drusko and Theresa Laird, both juniors, along with senior business competitive intelligence major Sarah Jansen are working as part-time staff members at Coalition Pathways, a local nonprofit whose mission is to prevent and reduce teen drug abuse. The three are also earning three university credits this semester by providing 200 hours of work as interns at the organization. Another Mercyhurst student, sophomore public health major Mallory Mansberry, is also working as a part-time staffer, although not as an intern.

“All of them are working with our Lead and Seed program to educate and train elementary, middle, high school and college students in drug and alcohol prevention,” explained Nora Drexler, Coalition Pathways president. “They all do presentations, work directly with young people, and participate in various events to create awareness, like a recent forum on heroin at Wattsburg High School.”

Drexler pointed out that heroin has become a serious problem locally, contributing to many deaths. Recent news reports indicate that the number of drug-related deaths in Erie County is higher than in recent years. In September, reports stated that there had been 42 drug-related deaths this year, almost half of them involving heroin.

No one is more aware of heroin’s tragic toll than Mercyhurst’s Theresa Laird, who has lost a cousin, a friend and her best friend to heroin. She also lost her father and another friend to a combination of alcohol and drugs, all in the past couple years.

“This job tugs at my heart strings,” Laird said of her work with Coalition Pathways. The weight of pain and sorrow from her personal experience with drugs has taken its toll, but rather than deflate her, it has had the opposite effect.

“I just couldn’t sit around and do nothing,” she said. “These were all good people who came from good families, and those families had tried everything they could to help. Heroin is just so addicting. Plus, it’s dangerous because you never know what you are getting.”

For a long time, Laird said she felt as if there was nothing she could do. She thought that the only real change had to come from a higher level than she had access to: policymakers. Then she met Nora Drexler.

“She is so inspirational to me,” Laird said. “She showed me that the work we do can make a difference. We might not be able to go to the policymakers, but we can make changes on a smaller scale that eventually affect a bigger population of people. Getting to kids early – before they try drugs – is really important.”

The mission of Coalition Pathways is to prevent and reduce teen drug use by changing knowledge, attitudes, skills and behaviors and by helping to provide adults, youth and families with the capacities they need to secure healthy, drug-free lifestyles. 

Laird works with Lead and Seed clubs at Corry High School and Mercyhurst Preparatory School. She gets together regularly with students to teach them about drugs and prevention. Together, they plan monthly events to share their knowledge.

“I’m never in the office; I’m always working with the kids doing events,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t have a passion for it.”