HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Drunk and behind the wheel, 19-year-old Eavan Jenkins lost control of her car doing 96 mph, veered across three lanes of traffic on Route 80, went off the road and crashed into a tree.
She remembers waking up – “there was glass, blood everywhere.”
Wracked with pain, still in a stupor, she reached across the console of the wrecked, crumpled car to her 18-year-old friend.
“He wasn’t responding,” she recalled, her voice quivering.
She had killed her friend, but didn’t know that until two NJ State Troopers came to her hospital room hours after the crash to break the news.
She stood in front of a room full of strangers at the Hillsborough Municipal building, recounting her life as a teenage drunk and how she was to blame for the death of her friend just nine months after they had graduated together from high School in Morris County. The audience sat transfixed; there were no side conversations, no rustling of papers. Jenkins spoke of ruining so many lives, of embarrassment, shame, guilt and the pain and suffering she caused for her mother and family.
She spent four years in prison.
Parents and students had gathered for a “Night of Conversation” where they confronted the realities of drug and alcohol abuse in Hillsborough and surrounding communities, hearing from Jenkins and other members of a guest panel – Michael H. Robertson, Somerset County Prosecutor; Rebecca Balaguer, Student Assistant Counselor at Hillsborough High School; Cara Goldstein, a licensed Professional Counselor and Lisa Nadine Petit, whose 18-year-old son died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2014 in his bedroom, where his mother found his lifeless body.
“You can’t take the position that it can’t happen to you,” Petit said. “What I didn’t know became what you need to know.”
In New Jersey, high rates of opioid addiction have claimed an estimated 5,000 lives in the past decade, with more people dying in New Jersey in 2016 from drug overdoses than from guns, car accidents and suicides, combined. According to the Office of the State Medical Examiner of New Jersey, there were between 2,090 and 2,250 drug-related deaths overall in New Jersey in 2016, up from 1,587 in 2015.
New Jersey also has the sixth highest rate in the nation of visits to the emergency room due to opioid abuse. And naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose, has been administered over 25,000 times in New Jersey since 2014.
The evening was moderated by Rev. Timothy J. Wolf, of the New Horizon Christian Fellowship.
Panelists emphasized the need for communication between parents and their children, vigilance, paying attention to friends, any changes in patterns or behavior,
The message was made clear – prevention is not passive; parental oversight is a must.
“Make sure children make good decisions,” said Dr. Jorden Schiff, Hillsborough superintendent of Schools. “I have buried students,” he said. “It is the worst feeling in the world.”
Robertson minced no words, saying he was alarmed at the high incidence of opioid abuse and heroin becoming the drug of choice for teenagers throughout Somerset County.
“It’s not getting any better,” Robertson said. “Hillsborough has a problem. It is in your backyard.”
Hillsborough has one of the highest rate of naloxone, or Narcan deployment in Somerset County, according to Robertson, ranking in the top 3 of the county’s 21 municipalities. Narcan is used by police and emergency responders to block the effects of opioids. It can be administered intraveneously, by injection, or more commonly, sprayed into the nose.
Robertson suggested that parents need to act more like parents, and not care as much about being a friend to their children, a message that his father repeated often as he grew up.
“I’m your father, not your friend,” Robertson recalled his father saying.
“The pendulum needs to swing back,” he added.
“While the law enforcement community continues to play a significant role in support, education, and enforcing the law, it requires an entire community to address an issue as widespread and potentially lethal as drug and alcohol abuse and addiction,” Robertson said.
“We need to speak to our kids,” Balaguer said, urging frequent conversations between parents and children.
“Obviously, we have an issue,” she added, offering a long list of why students turn to drugs.
“They start using because they want to feel good, feel better, perform better; school can be stressful.”
Students will act impulsively; they’re curious, want to impress their friends and frequently succumb to peer pressure, she added.
Goldstein, from the Family Center for Change delivered a similar message, adding that teens are susceptible to temptation.
She also spoke of genetics; 50 percent of those who become addicted do so because the disease runs in the family, according to Goldstein.
“It’s OK to ask for help; there is no shame in getting counseling if needed,” she said.
Somerset County YMCA, Hillsborough Township School District, Empower Somerset, the Safe Communities Coalition of Somerset County, Hillsborough Municipal Alliance and Hillsborough Youth Services Commission partnered to host the Night of Conversation.
“For more than 140 years, Somerset County YMCA has been working to address community needs,” said David Carcieri, president & CEO of the Somerset County YMCA. “Drawing on these firmly established roots, we recognize the severe impact that substance abuse has on individuals, families and loved ones, as well as the community at large.
“While we are dedicated to providing acute support to aid families and members in need,” he added, “we believe strongly in the power of prevention, including establishing healthy conversation habits among parents and children early and often.”