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All4Knox Summit Aims for a Community Wide Solution to the Opioid Crisis

Heather Starbuck knew of her fiancé’s past struggles with addiction, but in the two years they’d been together, she’d never seen them.

So it was shocking, as well as devastating, to Starbuck when Matthew Adams, 30, overdosed on heroin and died in the fall of 2017 – after years of staying sober and building new relationships, a career and a life in Colorado.

Adams became addicted to opioids at age 19, Starbuck said, starting with a prescription to oxycodone that he replaced with heroin when he could no longer get the pills. She said he then spent nearly 10 years fighting addiction, developing coping skills and dealing with underlying mental health and trauma issues.

“We all thought he’d overcome it,” Starbuck said. “He was really happy. He had an amazing career. He loved what he was doing.”

But, she said, insurance often didn’t cover the counseling he really needed -- and when the man who freely offered help to others needed it himself, he felt he had to hide it.

“He was trying to fight it alone, because he didn’t want to lose everything,” Starbuck said. “Had (addiction) been viewed differently in our culture, not viewed as a ‘failure,’ I think he would have reached out and been comfortable saying, ‘I’m not OK right now.’”

In her grief, Starbuck decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, stopping in towns devastated by the opioid epidemic to speak about Adams’ life.

“He was a beautiful soul,” she said. “He just warmed the room up with positive energy. He was really good at making people who were broken feel accepted and loved – everybody loved Matt. … These are the people we’re losing (to addiction), and it’s a national tragedy that we’re letting it happen.”

Starbuck partnered with Adams’ mother and sisters to form the Matt Adams Foundation. Short-term, it’s offering support and kits containing naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of opioid overdose. Long-term, they hope to fund recovery service for individuals, including after detox and rehabilitation treatment.

“We want to have ripple effects,” she said. “We have to change the process, change the mindset. Otherwise, we’re going to keep having this problem.”

Starbuck will be keynote speaker at the All4Knox Summit 9 a.m.-noon Aug. 2 at the University of Tennessee Student Union. The summit will introduce the new All4Knox effort to the public, which is invited.

All4Knox aims to address substance misuse in East Tennessee by bringing together all the groups who’ve been working on different segments of the problem for years, said Karen Pershing, director of Metro Drug Coalition.

Having such a community-wide strategy has long been a goal for Pershing, who years ago hoped to do it through MDC but decided she didn’t have the money or the manpower.

But the new effort has the support of the city and county mayors, Knox County Health Department, the University of Tennessee and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s 360 Strategy. Pershing hopes all the governmental agencies, nonprofits, grassroots efforts and businesses who have been attacking elements of the problem can now work together.

“There’s been a lot of different siloed efforts going on in our community that have all been really great and effective in their own little areas,” Pershing said. “This is about bringing it all together and getting more of the community mobilized.”

To that end, All4Knox is divided into nine different “sectors,” with people assigned to lead each. Sectors are business, education, faith-based communities, family and community, government, health-care professionals, justice centers, nonprofit/service organizations, and treatment, recovery and harm reduction organizations.

“We all come at the problem from a different viewpoint,” Pershing said.

On Aug. 1, UT will play host to the Summit for Opioid and Addiction Response, or SOAR, which also is open to the public. Aug. 2’s All4Knox kickoff summit, which includes several other speakers, is hosted by both mayors.

“The addiction and substance misuse epidemic has a tight grip on East Tennessee, and it will take a whole community effort to break free of it,” said Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who said the strategic plan involves both groups and individuals. “It’s not a problem that will fix itself or be done overnight, even with the best intentions. However, with the involvement of the entire community, I’m confident we can be effective, and the summit is a great way to hear how the public can be part of the solution.”

City of Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero said the summit provides an opportunity to engage parties “on a new level.”

“It is going to take all of us working together to address the opioid crisis and the underlying issues of substance misuse in our communities,” she said.

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