Drugs devastating lives of Appalachian women

Lori Sliwa
Lori Sliwa

The alarming increase in deaths of rural, middle-aged white women reported in the Aug. 22 Washington Post article “White women are dying younger: an undertaker’s sad lesson,” should be an urgent call to action for regional leaders and non-profit organizations like ours to work together to reverse the tide of tragically young deaths like those of Lois A. Maxwell and Betty West.

“The thing to be asking is how do we turn this around,” commented Mary Absher on Facebook. Absher is one of more than 800 women who have graduated from the New Opportunity School for Women, Inc.’s three-week residency program designed to improve Appalachian women’s personal and professional lives.

It is a question we ask almost every day.

“The women and the challenges they face are changing,” has been a frequent refrain among NOSW staff and board for years.

In the 1980s, when NOSW was founded, drugs had not yet taken hold in Appalachia. Appalachian women had plenty of obstacles in their way — geographic isolation, lack of access to education, lack of available jobs in the area, lack of child care, etc., but they were obstacles we knew and understood.

Perhaps their lives were hanging on by a thread, but most of them had not come all the way unraveled.

Today, the ubiquity of the drug culture has devastated the lives of many Appalachian women.

As a result, we are seeing more and more women with a history of addiction in our programs: women who do not have custody of their children, women raising grandchildren, women who have served time in jail, and women whose basic needs like shelter, food and clothing are unmet.

We don’t judge these women. We love them. They are our sisters. And we are committed to finding a way to reach them before their lives are in danger.

That’s why we are taking steps to adjust our programming to better meet their needs.

In 2017, NOSW will pilot one-week, place-based, non-residential programs at partner sites throughout Eastern Kentucky. These programs will literally meet the women where they are with a message they need to hear — that they are not their past, that caring for themselves is how to care for their loved ones, that loving support is available as they build new lives for themselves and their families.

But, just like the women we serve, we cannot do this work alone. We need to build a broad coalition of regional partnerships. As such, we eagerly invite potential partners and allies to reach out to us to explore joint solutions for tackling this problem together.

What’s more, we need more and better research, including up-to-date, culturally sensitive studies that can help us shed light on the challenges Appalachian women face.

Going forward, we continue to be inspired by our founder, Jane Stephenson, who saw a need in the community and boldly acted by founding this organization in 1987.

Almost 30 years later, there is a new need, one we must likewise address with courage and determination. We invite you to join us. Lives are on the line.