Small West Virginia town of Kermit is where U.S. opioid crisis began

Train tracks are seen in Kermit, W. Va., June 26, 2019. The small town in Appalachia is the epicenter of the nation’s opioid crisis. (CNS photo/Colleen Rowan, The Catholic Spirit)

by Colleen Rowan

KERMIT, W.Va. (CNS) — When presidential candidate and U.S. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts visited Kermit May 10 to discuss the state’s opioid crisis, Franciscan Sister Therese Carew was glad that someone was bringing attention to the crisis, but said it is a shame that it has taken so long.

“The opioid crisis didn’t just pop up,” said Sister Therese, who heads Christian Help, an outreach center providing emergency assistance in Kermit. Sister Therese had the opportunity to meet Warren and speak to her briefly about her community’s plight.

The Franciscan sister moved to Kermit 10 years ago, just a few months after the now infamous FBI shutdown of a town pharmacy through which 3 million pills were funneled into the community in 10 months. She has been executive director of Christian Help for four years and is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Williamson.

The most heartbreaking of the crisis, she said, is the children.

“If they go in and do a drug bust and there are children in the home they take those kids and literally hand them over to a family member,” Sister Therese told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling Charleston.

“So, we will have aunts and uncles and grandparents, great-grandparents coming in” for diapers, clothing, baby bottles, formula and more, she said. And the children living with parents who are addicted, fend for themselves.

“They’re not getting follow-up for routine medical because parents are under the influence,” she said. “They aren’t being parented. The kids are the parents, and they are the ones — the older kids — getting meals for the younger kids. That’s where I see some of the biggest impact.”

Next door to Christian Help, in the same building, is ABLE Families serving as a beacon of hope for Kermit’s children. ABLE stands for stands for Affirming, Believing, Learning, Empowering.

ABLE Families is a nonprofit faith-based agency founded in 1995 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling providing afterschool programming, in-home family education, nutrition education and summer camps.

The organization is dedicated to empowering families in the rural Tug Valley area of West Virginia’s Mingo County to gain more control of their lives.

Stephanie John, a 48-year-old who grew up in Kermit works at ABLE and said she sees a large number of grandparents raising their grandchildren because of parents’ addiction and incarceration. The lack of jobs for so long—- most notably with the decline of coal mining — has led many to turn to drugs, she said.

“People have lived so hard here and had such a bad time,” she said. “I think a lot of them get into the drugs as an escape for a little while . . . and then it just takes over. And from there, it’s just like a tornado.”

“Once you’re addicted,” Sister Therese said, “it takes more, and it takes more, and it takes more until finally you hit bottom and get help or you overdose and die.”

The cycle of poverty choking the area is a huge factor, she added.

“It’s a crazy cycle,” Sister Therese said. “I’ve had people ask me what’s the answer, and I don’t know what the answer is.”

“You have generations of people that for the men it was coal mining. Any a young man, up until about 10 to 15 years ago, if he was going to get a home, a car, a truck — the American dream — he was going to work in coal. And . . . it’s not here anymore with as great a need as it once was.”

Three hours north is Harrison County, which once had the highest number of overdose cases in the state. In response to the epidemic, Ellen Condron, associate professor of nursing and coordinator of Mental Health Nursing at Fairmont State University, spearheaded Community Conversations on Substance Abuse at her parish of All Saints in Bridgeport.

She initially planned for this to be a one-time forum in April 2016, but the series has garnered so much interest that it continues with new segments and will have its 11th session this fall.

Upon learning that West Virginia has the highest number of overdose deaths in the country, Condron said great strides have been made in the crisis, “but it’s depressing that we’re still there.”

Copyright ©2019 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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  • I feel sad reading this I love WV grew up in Delbarton lived in Crum for a while when I was a teen my sister and I used to go to Kermit to hang out.

  • My ex-wife died of a overdose two and a half years ago then the same week my 3 grandchildren were taken by the state of West Virginia and that was the last time I seen them and I drove down there and picked up my Daughter who was with my ex-wife when she died, My Daughter is handicapped and now living with me. It’s sad what drugs have done to families all over the Country but I have been to Kermit and the whole area and I have seen the Drug problem first hand there, They need to handle the situation better than tearing families up and thinking it will go away !! It won’t

  • I was raised in this small town, I remember walking to school, my cousin was the elected law enforcement officer, way back then, they (he and his wife)owned the local bar in the day)I have visited this small town throughout the years, but as a child that was my home. The bar is gone, the place I use to get a double scoop of ice cream for a nickel is gone, all the fine memories I have of this small town will always remain in my mind and heart.

    • Hi Wanda … my name is Mary Katherine Dingess (Spires)… my dad was a brother to opal Spaulding ( Jack Dingess)…. they owned a bar down the street from Oscars. My grandmother Ella Kirk old a resturant the south side going out of town beside the railroad crossing. Did you know Creamie Spaulding?

  • I lived in that town once upon a time a hard town to live in since there was one family that literally ran the town and every thing they owned was a cover up for drugs they bullied pp and threats accept me , I didn’t do any kindof drug but seen it all , they even made people magazine, sad town!

  • The sad conern is that some doctors helped push the opiods and get to keep their license. Let a drug addict sell a pill, and they get incarcerated for it. And, the doctors are the same “drug pushers” who got the addict on the drugs. And, some lawyers are saying that you can’t sue the doctors to receive compensation. However, if you take any other type of pharmaceutical drug and it causes a person harm, then you can sue the drug company.
    Pharmacies have the option of filling prescriptions or not, especially, if they see enormous amounts of opiods being prescribed to patients. They can say, “no.” However, most of the pharmacists choose to fill the prescriptions. The opiod epidemic made some pharmaceutical companies millions or, perhaps, billions of dollars.
    It has destroyed our young people and their families.