From Laura Ungr @ USA Today: A hard rain had just ended. Austin Indiana's streets were still wet as I walked alongside residents marching to protest the drugs that overwhelmed their tiny rural city.
Some held hands. Some draped arms around each other. Some pushed strollers. All walked with purpose past Morgan Foods, the ice cream cone-shaped sign for the Dairy Queen and the “recovery wall” of names outside H2O Church on Mann Avenue.
I knew many of the 200 marchers from more than three years of covering their town of just over 4,000 people, epicenter of rural America's worst HIV outbreak caused by IV drug use. I met some during their struggles with addiction. But on the late-August evening of the Fed Up! march, everyone was celebrating recovery.
In a larger sense, I thought, all of Austin is recovering, helped along by its angels, people working to heal the community and themselves. Among them are a mother, a preacher and a teacher.
My tears fell as I felt Austin's hope rising.
Almost on cue, a faint rainbow appeared in the still-threatening sky. The woman next to me, Sabina Adams, looked up and said: “That’s God’s promise.”
Never again, it seemed to portend, would their world be devastated like it was in 2015.
An Unexpected, Deadly Outbreak
Back then, Laura Nowling, a respected second-grade teacher and mother of three, hid a secret meth addiction. Pastor Jacob Howell roamed the streets of his hometown high on heroin. And choir director Kathy Risk-Sego helped her students cope with other kids' unfounded concerns that they had AIDS.
That's when I first visited Austin. In February of that year, I learned that Indiana state health officials were alarmed about tests showing 26 confirmed and four “preliminary positive” cases of HIV. Most had been caused by shooting up Opana, an opioid painkiller. Before that, the county had never had more than a handful of cases.
In less than a month, cases more than doubled. Eventually, HIV would sicken 235 people, and Austin's HIV rate would rival countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers would identify 220 counties nationally that are vulnerable to becoming the next Austin because they contain the same combustible mixture of problems tied to injecting drugs, such as overdose deaths, prescription opioid sales and unemployment. Many are in this region, which has been especially hard hit by drugs. In 2017, federal data shows, drug overdoses killed 1,566 people in Kentucky and 1,852 in Indiana.
In those first few months after the outbreak, despair was palpable. I remember watching haggard-looking young men walking past rundown homes on Rural Street, the most notorious stretch for drugs. Locals told me about women who sold their bodies to get money for drugs, sometimes to truckers who made a quick stop off the I-65 Austin exit.
Longtime residents pined for better days. They described growing up in a close-knit manufacturing town full of salt-of-the-earth people, a safe place where kids could ride their bikes without concern.
I could see the faded remnants of those Norman Rockwell days. Outside of the sketchy areas, this town 37 miles from Louisville was still that picture of rural America, with stubble-filled cornfields and a one-stoplight Main Street lined by churches, shops and sidewalks. There were plenty of tidy, well-kept houses, some not far from dilapidated ones. Lots of people pitched in to help their neighbors. I sensed a deep love among many for their hometown.
I saw a small-town soul trapped in chaos.
At The Intersection Of Hope And Despair
Of course some of the things that make small towns so wonderful can make disease outbreaks worse. When everyone knows each other, stigma can fester, discouraging people from getting tested or treated for HIV or seeking help for addiction. Disease can spread quickly when people share needles in close-knit groups. In some Austin families, three generations shared needles — young adults, their parents and their grandparents.
During those years, I described Austin as a place at the intersection of hope and despair.
But the desperate needs of the community — laid bare so starkly by the outbreak — seemed to strengthen others' generosity, love, and faith. It reminded me of what happens during natural disasters — such as floods or tornadoes — when neighbors share food and electricity and help each other rebuild homes. For many in Austin, saving themselves and the town brought out their best.
Consider Nowling, the second-grade teacher who struggled with meth. In February 2016, police led her out of Austin Elementary School in handcuffs after her arrest for having meth in her classroom and endangering her students. She hung her head, platinum blonde hair falling across her face, as new crews captured her walk to a waiting police car. Less than a year later, she was arrested again for dealing meth.
But she found freedom from addiction while locked in Scott County Jail. She took a faith-based class that tied the 12 steps of addiction recovery to Biblical teachings. She pored over her Celebrate Recovery bible so often it became dog-eared and tattered, and she fastened it together with the label from a VO5 shampoo bottle because there was no tape in the jail.
When she got out, Nowling, 50, fastened her life together in much the same way. She got a job in a factory, went to church whenever she could and became an enthusiastic member of Austin's growing recovery community. She now runs a Celebrate Recovery meeting, speaks to others struggling with addiction and shares her story within her community. She’s teaching again, in a new way.
“I want people to look at me and see hope,” she said.
Preacher Jacob Howell does, too. Addiction consumed him for nearly half his 35 years. At his lowest point, his constant quest for heroin replaced even things he loved, like fishing trips with his boys. He lost his job and blew through savings. Water and electricity to his trailer were cut off and he couldn’t flush the toilet. Mold grew on the carpets. Bugs crawled on the furniture.
But when Howell surrendered to God, the light of faith and community began pulling him up. He found a new calling as a pastor, then a new wife and family. He learned how to serve at the foot of his mentor, Paul Thomas, whose willingness to befriend, teach and guide a stranger changed both of their lives.
Howell is now a community leader, preaching the gospel and helping feed the hungry, clothe the poor and minister to the troubled at a church known for service. His very life is an example to those still living in desperation — that hope and transformation are real. Howell is now on a mission to save others still caught in that life, by bringing them to God and helping them into recovery. By saving souls and saving lives.
A Community Shares The Burdens And Blessings
And he has. Brian LaFever feels he was reborn when Howell baptized and befriended him. From that day on, LaFever vowed to get sober — and did. “He saved my life,” LaFever said.
Kathy Risk-Sego, a teacher who directs the show choir at Austin High School, is on a mission to nurture young voices at the impressionable cusp of adulthood. She’s a role model who gives hugs, directions and dreams. She applies, in equal measures, silliness, discipline and tenderness.
Her husband calls her “a wellspring of hope.” The kids just call her “mom.”
Many students endure serious hardships along with the usual trials of growing up. Former student Kasey Brandenburg, 19, lost both her parents to overdoses. Her mother was a singer, her father a drummer, and the music inside Brandenburg could have died with them if not for the people who stepped in to keep it alive. Risk-Sego was one. She keeps the music alive in all her kids.
In 2017, Risk-Sego’s choir, Dimensions, competed in a national championship in Chicago. It was the first time they’d ever made it that far. A big-budget California team beat them, but just being in the same league showed the kids what was possible. The theme of the show was overcoming obstacles; the closing number: “Unstoppable.”
“Kids are vulnerable here but I don’t dwell on it. I don’t let them dwell on it,” Risk-Sego said. “If you can’t move beyond that, you’re always going to be stuck.”
Thanks to people like these, Austin is recovering. More kids are graduating high school; graduation rates now exceed 90 percent. Cases of HIV have leveled off and the disease is well-controlled in most people. Needle sharing has plummeted and attendance at recovery meetings has risen tenfold.
People can change communities, one life at a time. When we help one another, we can create a chain of love that, over time, can transform even the most troubled place.
We’re all in this together. If our neighbors suffer, we suffer too.
For Austin, the suffering isn’t over. On the day of that Fed Up! march, the rain started tapping on my windshield as I pulled out of Austin.
Like so many communities, Austin still faces formidable challenges.
There is still addiction.
There are still deaths caused by the scourge of opioids.
There’s still poverty and despair.
But at that intersection of despair and hope, Austin is now taking a different direction.
It is moving down the path of hope.
Laura Ungar is an investigative and enterprise reporter with the Courier Journal, where this column originally appeared.