For too long, Brenda Thacker watched loved ones and friends struggle with addiction and substance abuse, only to be shunned by society and written off as weak-minded and criminal.

Sparked by various fundraisers and outreach efforts for everything from cancer to hurricane relief to food collections, she and a friend, Tori Peters, organized a community event that sought to raise awareness about the nature of substance abuse and to provide money for treatment and programs.

The result is the 10th annual Walk Against Addiction, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 21, at the First Flight school complex in Kill Devil Hills. Activities begin at 8 a.m. with a 5K run, and participants will walk from First Flight High School through the parking lots of the middle school and elementary school. A raffle will be held with prizes donated by local merchants, and free hot dogs and hamburgers will be provided. Local vendors and educators will be in attendance.

“We started the walk to shatter the stigma of the disease and addiction,” Thacker said. “I have always wanted to help those who were sick with this disease, because they’re basically good people.”

The keynote speaker at this year’s event is Tim Ryan, a nationally known substance abuse recovery advocate and himself a recovering addict who lost a son to a drug overdose. He is the founder and executive director of the A Man In Recovery Foundation and author of the book “From Dope to Hope.” He starred in the A&E network documentary “Dope Man” that aired in 2017 and has appeared in dozens of news outlets.

“A lot of people don’t want to address addiction as a health issue. They view it as a moral failing,” said Amanda Daniels, a former Wanchese resident and recovering addict who wrote a book, “Addict Chick: Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘N Roll,” about her experiences. She and Thacker became friends through their efforts, and she spoke at last year’s walk. “Until it happens to you or affects your family, you don’t understand the problem, and even then, it’s still stigmatized. If people don’t think it can happen to them or their family, they’re kidding themselves.”

The initial Walk Against Addiction 10 years ago attracted about 80 participants and just a handful of sponsors and contributors, Thacker said. Sponsorships and donations have increased, she said, and last year’s event drew about 140 participants. She said that the walk earns between $5,000-$7,500 annually.

Money raised by the walk funds education programs about addiction and assistance for those who need help. Thacker said donations and money raised might pay for a bus ticket to a rehab facility or rent at an addiction center or halfway house.

“It raises awareness,” Peters said of the walk, “and educates people to break the silence of some loved one or a friend, where we can openly come together and maybe change one life at a time.”

Increase in opioid use and opioid-related addiction have helped to ease the stigma and to shift the conversation from a law enforcement issue to a public health problem. Opioid-related overdose deaths skyrocketed from 8,000 in 1999 to 47,600 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Deaths more than doubled just since 2011.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimated that 20.7 million Americans age 12 or older needed treatment for substance abuse in 2017, but only four million people received treatment. The NIDA also reported that genetics alone account for 40-60 percent of the risk for addiction, and that environmental factors contribute, such as a chaotic, abusive home life, parents’ drug and alcohol use and attitudes, peer pressure, and poor academic achievement.

A report by the National Institute of Health (NIH) said that approximately half of state and federal prisoners meet the criteria for drug abuse and dependence, but that less than 20 percent of them receive treatment. The NIDA also estimated that drug addiction costs American society more than $740 billion annually, in lost workplace production, health-care expenses and crime-related costs.

Thacker, 64, is a self-employed bookkeeper and accountant who transplanted to the Outer Banks with her family 30 years ago. Her father was an alcoholic, and family members dealt with substance abuse through the years. Though the annual addiction walk is her most visible undertaking, she is tireless in support of counseling and recovery.

She works part-time as Programs Director at the Dare County Detention Center, where she estimated that 80 percent of detainees are there for drug-related offenses. She arranges for counselors and teachers to come in and provide guidance about recovery, sobriety, and anger management. She also helps steer detainees to rehab facilities where necessary.

Thacker and Peters understand that eliminating drug dependency and the accompanying pain and suffering in our society is unlikely. They aim to open paths for discussion and treatment, and to persuade health care professionals to be less reliant on drugs. Addicts should be treated as people, they say, not as failures or criminals.

“As far as we have to go,” Thacker said, “we’ve come a long way.”

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