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Impact of local substance abuse highlights community conversation

Speakers urge communication, preparation for heroin epidemic

Officer Al Fear, director of the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative, speaks during the Jasper County Substance 
Abuse Coalition's Community Conversation on Thursday at the Newton High School Auditorium.
Officer Al Fear, director of the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative, speaks during the Jasper County Substance Abuse Coalition's Community Conversation on Thursday at the Newton High School Auditorium.

Communication between kids and parents and throughout the communities in Jasper County are opening dialogue on the serious issue of substance abuse was the overarching message Tuesday at the Jasper County Substance Abuse Coalition Community Conversation.

Held at the Newton High School Auditorium, more than 100 people listened to recovering addicts share their testimonials, what is being done and is available in the county for those dealing with substance abuse, whether personally or in support. They also heard from featured speaker Al Fear on his work battling heroin and opioid abuse throughout the state. Newton Police Chief Rob Burdess started the evening welcoming the crowd and talking about the coalition and its work in the past year.

“You’re here for your community, you care about Newton and Jasper County as a whole and you care about the people here,” Burdess said. 

After dealing with substance abuse issues during his career in law enforcement, Burdess said he, along with many in the community, came to the realization that something different needed to be done. He wanted to get to the root of the problem instead of only treating the symptoms.

“If we go to the root of why these things are happening, the community is going to be healthier and safer for everybody,” Burdess said.

Enter the idea for the substance abuse coalition. In the months following the creation of the coalition, a group of dedicated members made up of service providers, law enforcement, educators and other concerned community members came together to find a better way to communicate to the public and begin the process of making a fundamental change when it comes to substance abuse.

One of the first ideas the coalition formulated was a forum to discuss the issues plaguing the county. After working with providers, former users and adding Fear to the lineup, the coalition presented.

Some of the most powerful words during the conversation came from the three recovering addicts and the parent of an addict who gave video testimonials. All former users of a variety of substances including methamphetamine, heroin and prescription pills among others, the testimonials drove home the message of communication as a major tool for prevention.

“You have to talk to your children. If you see them come home and they are sad or you see things going on in their life, you have to talk to them. Even if they won’t talk to you, you have to talk to them,” one person said during their testimonial. “Say you can talk to me about anything, you don’t have to hide anything. I am the person that is there for you, nobody out there loves you as much as I do.”

Another testimonial echoed those words and added it is important to reassure kids that drugs are not the road they want to take. Through their own life experiences, the testimonials talked about how they never thought they would get hooked on drugs, how using drugs took away their family, dreams and freedom and the road to recovery is hard but attainable, with them as living proof.

“People who are suffering from addiction are doing things they wouldn’t normally do,” featured speaker Al Fear said. “Addiction is knowing something is bad for you and not having the ability to stop.”

Fear, a 23-year veteran of law enforcement and director of the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative, laid out the origins of the heroin and opioid epidemics, how it is making its way to central Iowa and what is being done to battle the problem.

“Ohio, that is ground zero for this whole mess,” Fear said. “The epidemic went over to the east coast, up the east coast and now it is making its way westward across the United States.”

In 2013, Fear said, the Midwest became the leader in the number of deaths that are happening nationwide due to heroin use. Closer to home, in 2015 Linn County had 330 people who were admitted to the hospital for opioids. One year later, the number jumped to 874 people.

“In just one year, we have more than doubled the number of people who are seeking treatment for opioid and heroin issues,” Fear said.

While those numbers are staggering, Fear said the worst is yet to come with the peak of the epidemic expected to occur in three to five years. Even with the grim news, Fear expressed hope given the work that is already underway in Jasper County.

“I’ve done 14 town meetings and tonight, this has personally changed my life,” Fear said. “I have only been in town since about 2 p.m., already just from seeing the leadership you have in Newton, seeing the coalition members that are here and what you guys have already done in preparation of the opioid epidemic coming your way, it is breathtaking.”

Burdess wrapped up the event issuing a challenge to those in attendance and to the community.

“The challenge to you, you see the seats that aren’t filled. Where is everybody? You’re here, you are our voice,” Burdess said. “We have a plan, we have a strategic plan for our community as a coalition, we need more people. Fifty organizations is not enough, it takes a community to make a difference and it starts right here.”

Contact Jamee A. Pierson at 641-792-3121 ext. 6534 or

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