Dare County confronts substance abuse problem

The Associated Press

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AVON — The sky behind the white steeple of the Avon Worship Center was streaked rose and orange as a line of teenagers shuffled through the church's doors and into the parking lot.

They filled buckets and dropped in cloth balls for water dodgeball. Boys and girls headed to opposite ends of the asphalt - the boys plotted strategies in hushed tones, the girls whispered and giggled, the straps of their swimsuits peeking from the necks of their T-shirts.

Cody Harris, 30, stood in the middle. He looked more like somebody's cool cousin than the leader of the church's youth group, wearing board shorts, a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and earrings depicting Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. His bleached hair, twisted into a ponytail, grazed the tattoo on his neck.

Harris was once like the teens he ministers to on Hatteras Island - awkward, confused, searching for acceptance in this beach community. With his friends, he turned to drugs because they let him hide his self-consciousness, allowed him to be someone cooler, funnier, smoother. He left Avon for rehab and a new life, but returned three years later to show the teens where he grew up that drugs are not the answer to their problems.

Back in this quaint village of 800 residents, where everyone knows everyone, Harris' past remains close.

As he prepared the boys' team to launch an attack on the girls', he waved a tattooed arm at a man strolling across the street from Avon's harbor on the lapping Pamlico Sound.

That man had been his drug dealer.

Harris' experience is not unique to Dare County. Beneath an exterior of sun-bathed beaches and high-dollar vacation homes lies a persistent problem: substance abuse.

A decade ago, Dare residents ranked it as their top health concern in a state survey. From 2004 through 2006, a total of 17 Dare residents died of overdoses. People seemingly were dying left and right, recalled Dare County Commissioner Allen Burrus. That prompted state and local officials to form a task force.

The group concluded in its assessment what some had long suspected: Coastal Dare County hosts a vacationers-fueled party atmosphere where excess can seem normal. The tourism culture can affect locals, who are used to summers flush with vacationers' money, a ready supply of drugs and free-flowing alcohol. When businesses close for winter and the population shrinks from 200,000 to 30,000, some residents turn to those substances to ease the boredom and woes of unemployment.

The group also realized the county lacked meaningful substance-abuse services, said Anne Thomas, Dare's health director.

So the county designated $500,000 in its budget annually to pay for drug prevention and intervention efforts.

Many newer efforts target teenagers and young adults. Born into a culture of and anything goes, substance abuse can seem acceptable for them, Burrus said.

In the 2005-06 school year, acting independently of the task force, Dare's school district began random drug testing of students in grades seven through 12 who were involved in extracurricular activities. Educators wanted to deter substance abuse and set the expectation that students are to be drug-free, said Nancy Griffin, the district's director of secondary instruction.

The number of positive tests and test refusals grew steadily every year, peaking in 2009-10 at 14.6 percent, according to school district data. The national average is 2.5 percent, the data showed.

But hope arrived this past school year, Griffin said, when the percentage dropped to 10.3, the program's first decline. "We feel it is possible that the culture is starting to shift," she said.

Thomas sees progress as well. She said one in five of those looking for help for substance abuse referred themselves to treatment last year - a figure considered high. "It's really an attitude of no tolerance," Thomas said. "The community knew what it needed, it got it, and it's working."

Burrus said he's observed substance abuse's grip on his community loosen. He's seen those with addictions end up in rehab, and he knows of fewer people dying from overdoses. Still, he wishes the community was more open about its struggles.

"Even today, people won't talk about it, and they're enabling the problem by not talking about it," he said.

Despite what some see as improvement, the problem persists.

Dare County Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett says it has taken root. He hears more charges these days related to drug addiction - people stealing from family members for drug money, for example.

Previously, drug charges would originate in specific communities, Tillett said.

"Now, there's serious drug addiction in places you wouldn't see it before," Tillett said. "Now, I see people from good families in the throes of drug addiction."

In a tree-shaded house on the Pamlico Sound shore, a secret festered in an upstairs bedroom.

Carpeting concealed a stash: prescription pills, heroin, and sometimes cocaine. Cody Harris hid used needles from his grandmother atop door frames.

At age 15, Harris had moved into the idyllic home preserved by generations of his family. It was there, across the highway from a beach where tourists surfed on white-capped swells, that his addiction played out.

By the time Harris was 18, his drug use progressed from experimentation. He was shooting up. He started selling, which led to arrests and jail time.

After the birth of his first son and a series of deaths in the family, he spiraled out of control. He did things he never thought he'd do - even shooting up in his jugular vein, combining heroin and cocaine into dangerous speedballs.

But Avon's close-knit community hadn't turned its back on him. As he prepared to shoot up one day, Harris heard a knock at the door. It was three women he'd known since childhood. He put away the syringe and spoon he used to melt pills to inject, and let them in.

The group returned another day, and another. During that third visit, Harris agreed to get help.

It was 2006 when Harris, then 24, went to rehab. When he returned, he married Meredith Lyerly, the woman who'd stuck by him. He became a better father to their son, Calvin.

He decided to go to Rhema Bible Training College in Oklahoma. Though Harris had always believed in God and attended church, his faith strengthened while he was in a faith-based rehab program. After graduating in 2010, he and Meredith, along with Calvin and newly-born son Ozzy, saw their future as missionaries in the South Pacific.

Then Harris got a phone call from Pastor Bryan Gray at the Avon Worship Center, asking him to be the church's youth pastor.

Harris didn't want to return. But he thought about the kids who'd looked up to him while he walked a wayward path. Though he would be ministering to all the area's teens - the Friday youth group is open to all youths - he would also be able to help the ones who were using drugs - just like he once did.

"I wanted to show them what was real," Harris said. "My heart's for missions. But those kids who are on drugs, it's like a mission trip, each one of them."

The unadorned brick ranch house where Harris lives is a few steps down a dirt path and across a paved road from his grandmother's home. But his life is miles away from where it used to be.

The family's return hasn't been easy. Since the youth pastor's position only provides housing, he and Meredith have picked up extra jobs. He's worked construction and at a beach club; she's got a job at a bead shop.

The life Harris once knew flirts with him. Though he sees old friends who are still around, Harris goes home when it gets dark. Sometimes he thinks, "Man, it would be fun to party with those guys."

The sober path can be a lonely one. "I'm no saint. I still struggle," he said.

Some of his friends are dead. One overdosed. An ex-girlfriend committed suicide after failed attempts to get clean.

Harris also found a changed drug scene. Younger and younger kids are using and selling, he said, some shooting up as young as 15.

Still, he's had success in his mission, getting two kids into rehab and with more headed that way. He hands out a thin Bible aimed at surfers, which, as he said, "takes the thiseth and the thoueth out." And he has assistance from local anti-drug groups such as Yellow House Ministries, founded by the women who helped him get into rehab six years ago.

Harris has provided something Avon needed - a voice of experience and change, said Lois Miller, one of Yellow House Ministries' founders. "He now sets an example that you can turn your life around," she said.

Harris's message is about God's unending love. He reminds teens that, in the Bible, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, society's unwanted ones.

Interspersed in the message are stories from Harris' past - about being airlifted to a hospital after a drug binge, and run-ins with the cops - which he delivers in the fashion of a knowing older brother.

He has teens touch the depressions in his left cheek where he is missing parts of his orbital bone; that's from a crash he got into while intoxicated.

He punctuates his preaching with phrases such as, "Go on with some of that religious mess." His manner might be unconventional, but Harris likes it that way.

"If you hate religion, you'll love my church," he likes to say.

The smells of cooking beckoned teens to a meeting room at the Avon Worship Center on Friday evenings. On water dodgeball Friday, it was the maple-tinged smell of sausage.

"Y'all know the rules: Ladies first," Harris told the nine teens as they filled their plates with eggs, biscuits and doughnuts. The group, which includes local and vacationing teens, can be as few as six or as many as 20, depending on the week.

As they chowed down after prayer, Harris told everyone how once he'd eaten 17 eggs at a breakfast buffet. One boy giggled so hard he held a hand in front of his mouth to keep the food inside.

Back inside after the water dodgeball game - the boys won - the scene turned contemplative. The teens circled in folding chairs. Harris's elbows rested on his knees as he sat on a table.

One teen talked about her friend's death; two others expressed a desire to get baptized. All discussed the struggles of attending church, since it wasn't thought of as cool.

Harris told them he'd been there. He told them how badly he'd wanted acceptance, how he'd have done anything for attention.

But don't let yourself be swayed, he warned the teens. Be strong and true to yourself. "I never let the world classify me," he told them. "I'm just me."

The teens sat still, eyes glued to Harris as he spoke. When he finished, Hampton resident Meryn McKinney, vacationing in Avon, said, "Can you come to my church and be youth pastor?"

Harris laughed. "They wouldn't want someone crazy like me in your church."

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