Kutztown Strong, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating youth substance abuse, held a Key Leaders Gathering Oct. 10 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the group’s existence.
Introduced in spring 2014, Kutztown Strong was created based on an initiative set forth by then Kutztown Area School District Superintendent Kathy Metrick.
“When I first put out the call to action in 2014, it was because there had just been another [drug-related] death,” said Metrick, “And we just couldn’t own it as a school district.”
This call to action was met with more than just a short-term fix for the substance abuse issues that Metrick was fighting against. It led to the creation of an organization that still stands today, constantly evolving to fit the changing needs of the community. And, according to Kutztown Strong’s current president, Kelley Neyhart, the past five years have only been the beginning.
“That’s one big thing for us. Somebody says, ‘Where are you going to be in five years?’ and we say that we’re going to be where the community needs us to be.”
Neyhart’s involvement with Kutztown Strong was initiated by a tragedy that quite literally hit very close to home.
“I wake up one Sunday, and I go online and I’m reading the Reading Eagle, and I go into the obituaries, and I see a name—why do I know that name?” recollected Neyhart. “Then I realized. Just two doors up, it was the neighbors that I had just met. Their son overdosed in Philadelphia.”
This came very soon after Neyhart and his wife, Celine, had returned to the U.S. after spending several years living in Canada. It provided the pair with an immediate way to serve their community, and with each having experience working with children in education, they knew it was something they were capable of doing. Since then, they’ve proved time and time again just how capable they are.
With programs stretching from K-12, Kutztown Strong has become a symbol of safety and responsibility for students across all grade levels.
“We had a student who had returned from rehab, and he relapsed. He told another student who had had addiction issues that he was really struggling, and that student sent him to Kutztown Strong,” said Metrick, in recalling an experience from her tenure as superintendent.
Though safety and responsibility are important principles of Kutztown Strong’s mission, their involvement with students also relies on another key aspect: Fun. Programs give kids, from elementary through high school ages, the opportunity just to have a good time with their peers while avoiding dangerous activities.
Kutztown Area School District Superintendent Dr. George Fiore cherishes these programs.
“The danger points for kids is unstructured time after school and on weekends. Those are the trouble spots, where we don’t have a lot of influence on their behaviors,” said Fiore. “What Kutztown Strong has done is they’ve filled the gap on days like half days, when there is potential for a lot of bad behavior and also a lack of parental supervision because they might be working.”
Half days, school days that have students dismissed around lunch time, have been a main focus for Kutztown Strong in the local high school. Neyhart has been a key player in establishing opportunities for kids to attend events that promote smart and healthy after-school activities. These events have included trips to Kutztown University’s Student Recreational Center where middle and high school students are provided free lunch and a chance to play games and engage in team sports using the university’s facilities.
“Kutztown Strong has filled a vacuum, so that kids now have a positive interaction, they have a place to go, and it’s one that’s with their peers and good role models. That is invaluable.,” said Fiore.
Despite achievements like these, it is never easy to bask in the organization’s accomplishments when so much work is still to be done. Just two weeks ago, another local youth died of a drug overdose.
And not only that, the work is never easy. As a non-profit organization, Kutztown Strong relies on grants and donations to operate, which entails lots of long hours, hard work, and driving campaigns. Though she may not be the face of the organization, Neyhart was sure to recognize the woman responsible for many of these tireless efforts, community organizer Sheryl McKlveen. “She pushes us in the direction we need to go.”
The organization only pays one member for 20 hours a week, but it takes an army of volunteers to actually keep programs running. McKlveen’s around-the-clock availability has made her a driving force in leading this army to continue creating success throughout Kutztown Strong’s initiatives.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m pushing donkeys, but I end up dragging back stallions,” said McKlveen.
It all becomes worth it, though, when that work pays off.
“If you just save a single child or young adult, it’s all worth it,” said Metrick.
The efforts being put forth by Kutztown Strong have not gone unnoticed. The gathering’s keynote speaker, State Sen. Judy Schwank was inspired by the successes of the organization and its programs.
Schwank’s keynote address focused on the importance of community collaboration in the prevention of youth substance abuse. Some of the most staggering statistics included an estimated 34 percent of adolescent drug use being suicidal. Schwank stressed that a strong community with an effective support system and positive leaders is a key to preventing such drug abuse in teenagers. She also expressed her appreciation for programs like Kutztown Strong and other similar community task forces.
“[Kutztown Strong] is a model that I think should be used in other communities. I’m here tonight, and wanted to come tonight, because I want them to know that they have my full faith and support in what they’re doing,” said Schwank.
With accolades and accomplishments as impressive as these, Kutztown Strong could take a moment to sit back and celebrate their successes these past five years. Instead, the organization remains constantly devoted to pushing forward to continue helping as many people as they can.
As former president Andrew Brett said, “We’re still making a difference, but we’re not done yet.”