By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
About 10 years ago, Princeton native Greg Puckett was looking for a new direction in his life. He was frustrated by the problems he was seeing in his community, and he wanted to find a way to give back to it. He found this avenue for his efforts when he became part of Community Connections, Inc.
Puckett, now 41, shared part of his busy schedule to talk about how he came to be part of Community Connections and the community issues it works to address. He sat down in the agency’s headquarters off South Walker Street in Princeton to recall the past.
“I’ve been executive director here since 2006,” Puckett recalled. “I’m only the second director ever within the agency. Shannon Atwell, who is the director of Child Law Services, was the original director for a period I think of 11 years.”
Community Connections was originally set up during the administration of former Gov. Gaston Caperton, he said.
“Family resource networks were set up around West Virginia to service communities and really to be an agency for opportunities for growth and looking at the welfare and well-being of children and families.” Puckett said. “As we’ve grown over the years, we’ve seen programs come in like Child Protect that Atwell and Mary Ellen Griffith had started that are now independent, and child advocacy centers have grown all over the state. We had different programs we used to do like Kiddie Fair with our children, with the immunizations; those programs were then absorbed by the schools and other things. We have a track record of building programs and setting ourselves aside and letting those programs being sustainable on their own.”
Community Connections is not a state agency.
“Actually, we are an independent, 501C3 nonprofit,” Puckett stated. “We basically get a very minimal stipend for the state, about $40,000. How we parley that $40,000 into other opportunities is a testament to the people we have working for us. This last year in particular, yes, we are a local family resource center for Mercer County, but we also do regional programs like our regional tobacco prevention program. We have a regional substance abuse prevention initiative with 13 counties, and we’ve two statewide pieces where we work with other coalitions across the state, and the state Teen Court Association is run through here.”
Puckett is a Princeton native who went to school in his hometown and attended a nearby college.
“This is home. I’m a grad, a Princeton Senior High grad of ‘87. And then I went to Concord (College) and coached the Concord Sea Lion swim team for many years. I was on that team and affiliated with that team for about 20 years total. I graduated from Concord in ‘93 with a bachelor’s in communications art.”
Puckett did not go to work for Community Connection immediately after graduating from Concord. He tried a few jobs before fate led him to his present career.
“I was actually working a few jobs when I got out of college and kind of worked my way around, and then in 2001 I was really frustrated about what I saw in the community and what needed to happen,” he recalled. “I had worked with youth for a long time, and I wanted to do something to give back to the community. And it just happened to be that the same time I was looking for a new job that Community Connections was looking for a Drug Free Communities coordinator with a new grant they had gotten in 2001.
“When I applied for that job, you could tell there were some divine pieces in that because it was just like I was meant to be there, and it’s working with local people creating opportunities for youth coalition, trying to build capacity there, and do as much as we can over substance abuse issues,” Puckett said.
When the coordinator position was starting to end, a new position in Community Connections was becoming available.
“The grant that I had with Drug Free Communities was ending, so it was merger, transforming in the executive director position,” he said. “Then we looked to expand as much as we could because our community has multiple needs. Health needs, we’ve got tons of issues around substance abuse, which is where our lot of our focus has been over the past few years. It’s such a prevalent problem. Again, we’ve tried to be that agency. It’s been challenging, but yet rewarding all at the same time.”
Since 2006, the agency has seen improvements concerning substance-abuse issues in the Mercer County community.
“I think that’s where I’ve seen a lot of progress over the past few years. We’ve worked to start teen court initiatives, we’ve worked to do all these other things, and we’ve seen very minimal financial support like most states for substance abuse prevention,” Puckett said. “We’ve been extremely pleased that our Legislature this year, that in an election year, has understood the responsibilities of the substance abuse problems and they passed the governor’s bill that really allows for prevention, intervention and treatment money to go back into the community.”
Unfortunately, the agency is now seeing an overall down turn in financial support from the federal government, Puckett said.
“Since really around 2005 we’ve seen about a 60 percent reduction in funding. We’ve seen significant reductions in tobacco use and we’ve got reductions on alcohol use. The first time that a youth tries alcohol, we’ve stretched that out. It’s not as young anymore. It’s getting a little bit later and later. That’s working, but yet we’ve seen this prescription drug problem skyrocket. It’s like a snowball rolling downhill, and it keeps picking up a lot more snow,” he said.
The funding reduction has cut back on programs addressing drug abuse problems.
“In 2009, the federal government decided to cut the Safe and Drug Free Communities drug program. It was huge, even though it wasn’t a lot of money that went into the schools, it gave a little bit of money to continually work on this program,” Puckett said. “Without that, then basically our community said the schools are focusing on No Child Left Behind, the community still wants to help, but the schools didn’t have that focus; so we’re starting to see statistics that were going down over the last 20 years hit the bottom and start to bounce back up.”
“We’re starting to see a lot more harder issues when it comes to drug use. Marijuana is so readily available, unfortunately. You can’t eradicate everything because it’s so widespread,” Puckett said. “There’s a lack of perception of harm. Kids don’t even think marijuana is illegal. They see the legalization for medical purposes in California and several other states, and in their minds, we don’t even see it as illegal or a bad substance.”
In most cases, teens prefer marijuana to alcohol, he said. The same attitude extends to prescription pain medication.
“That’s the one thing that we’re starting to see that there’s this perception that there is no particular harm with these types of drugs,” Puckett explained. “Because I think they see it as ‘the doctor gave it to me, so it must be okay.’”
One worrisome issue is that the patent for one widely-abused painkiller, oxycodone, is set it expire in less than two years, Puckett said. The manufacturer now uses a “gummy” formula that makes the pills more difficult to abuse, but if the patent expires, generic versions of the older version could be made and sold.
“If that hits the street as a generic, they’ll be able to chop the product,” Puckett said. “You’re going to start seeing everyone wanting to make oxycodone, and you’re going to see the problem get unbelievably worse.”
“A lot of people say it get off the market because it’s harmful, and it is, but it’s also a very good drug if used the right way. You’ve got to remember that drug was set up for people who are chronic pain patients and have a desperate need for assistance. You can’t prescribe that for mild headaches.”
Educating the public about the dangers of abusing prescription pain medication is one way to address the abuse problem. Another problem is that patients having financial problems are often tempted to sell their prescriptions for extra money, he said. Elderly people facing higher cost of medication and other expenses sometimes sell their extra pills not because they want to be drug dealers, but because they need extra money.
Another issue aggravating the drug abuse problem is that so many young people grew up in “a medicated society,” Puckett said.
“If you look back 20 or 30 years ago, if kids were hyper, you let them go outside and play and they burned off that energy,” he added. “Now kids are hyper and they’re playing video games and they’re put on Ritalin or any other kind of ADD (attention deficit disorder) medication because they’re not concentrating. We’ve adapted to them to think, ‘I don’t feel right so I’ll take a pill for that. If I don’t feel like it, I can medicate it.’”
Upstairs in Puckett’s office, a visitor will quickly note the Mail Pouch chewing tobacco signs and other memorabilia. In the early 20th century, the product’s promoters paid farmers for the right to paint Mail Pouch promotions on the sides of their barns. It was the first outdoor advertising; in other words, the first American billboards, Puckett said.
The old advertising method is now being used to discourage the use of chewing or “spit” tobacco. One barn near Union in Monroe County now features the first anti-spit tobacco sign of its type. Puckett looked at a picture of it on his computer and said that it would soon get a fresh coat of paint.