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Plenty of room in the arena

I became aware of a Facebook group recently called “Finding Solutions — Waynesville.” On the surface it appeared this group was looking for solutions to the town’s social issues of homelessness and addiction, so I joined in so I could observe and perhaps offer valuable resources to the discussion — after all, The Smoky Mountain News has covered these issues extensively in the last several years.

I quickly realized many members of the group are more determined to dismantle the efforts that have been made to address the problem. There were so many posts and comments from people complaining about how homeless people and those suffering from substance use disorder impact their lives and people wanting Haywood Pathways Center and The Open Door Ministries gone from Waynesville. 

Based on the commentary, it’s clear many people in the community still don’t understand the complexity of these social issues — they don’t know how counties are funded for behavioral health or how much funding the state has cut to Medicare and Medicaid providers in Western North Carolina. They can’t grasp how much money it costs county taxpayers to incarcerate people who really just need rehabilitation. 

But, what is so disheartening is to read so many comments that show people’s lack of empathy for those experiencing homelessness and or addiction. Many in this Facebook group are determined to bash the nonprofits working diligently to provide resources for our most vulnerable populations. Someone even put “nonprofits” in quotes as if to signify that these hard-working people have ulterior motives. 

Being the objective reporter that I aim to be, I offered links to articles, research studies and census data to help people understand and answer their questions, but again I was just met with uneducated opinions that will in no way bring about change and progress. Then the bleeding heart in me became angry at my fellow community members before I remembered wise words from President Teddy Roosevelt. Well, actually I remembered Brené Brown — Ph.D. research professor at the University of Houston who has written several books on courage, shame, vulnerability, and empathy — using the Roosevelt quote often as she encourages her readers to not heed criticism from those who don’t understand the struggle. 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So yeah, I could use this entire column to complain about the people complaining from the cheap seats, but it would be pointless. I want to speak to those who are in the arena every day marred by dust, sweat and tears as they fall, fail, dust themselves off and get right back up the next day to keep fighting in hopes of rejoicing in another small victory. The work people at Pathways and Open Door as well as our behavioral health and addiction nonprofit providers are doing to make a difference in this county is thankless, exhausting and depressing. But for every failure to reach someone, there’s hope to save someone — that’s what keeps them going. In my reporting I’ve met so many dedicated people working to overcome the devastation drugs have brought to our community. They work to provide education, prevention, mental health resources, diversion programs, jail ministries and peer support — anything they can think of to make a dent in the epidemic. It’s not perfect and we can always do more when resources are available, but until we come to terms with the fact that addiction is only a symptom of larger systemic issues we’re just treading water. Our state has to invest more resources into understanding trauma and how it impacts people’s lives forever if it’s not dealt with properly. We need more school counselors, more mental health funding and more affordable housing options for people. What we don’t need is for this community to stop supporting the organizations that don’t cost taxpayers any money and are funded by private donations. 

I don’t want to discourage public discussions regarding these important issues, but I want their opinions to be well-educated. Before you criticize, go cook a meal for people staying at Pathways Center; offer to teach the residents a valuable skill that could help them lift themselves up; keep bottles of water, healthy snacks and hygiene products in your car and give them out when you encounter someone in need. 

There are so many ways to be a part of the solution and not the problem. I challenge those up in the cheap seats to make their way down into the arena — there’s plenty of room. 

(Jessi Stone is news editor of The Smoky Mountain News. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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