In the past few weeks I have been following the Bangor Daily News project “Before addiction there’s a child” and learning about students’ insights into the challenges of substance use disorders.

All of it brought me back to a job I held in the 1990s in the Old Town school system entitled “chemical health coordinator.” The title makes you think I worked in a nuclear power plant, but the job was working as a substance abuse counselor in grades kindergarten to 12.

The job had many roles, including prevention, treatment, referrals and education. In reading the BDN articles, I realized how important this job was for the mental well being of the students and how it created a safe place to learn, talk, feel supported and discover who they were without judgement.

Most of my day was spent in my office located in the high school, and I can testify it was never empty or silent. What I discovered was that it was the only safe place in the building for many students who had no place they felt welcome.

Nearly 20 years later, this is a message I received from a former student on a Facebook post: “When I went to OTHS many moons ago her office was a safe harbor for all those misfits & wanderers (like myself) she was always welcoming & real. As a student who didn’t know anyone when I moved there or have any athletic skills, she gave me (and countless others) a place where it was ok to not belong, because you still fit in. The difference she made is probably infinitely larger than she recognizes.”

Years ago we recognized the importance of substance abuse prevention and education, and many schools had positions such as mine. But as budgets got tighter and academic expectations got more demanding, positions like this were eliminated.

The pressure on schools today is enormous to perform to the highest of academic standards, which is what we want as parents, but in the process we cannot forget about the importance of teaching children about decision making, mental health, and the risks involved with using and abusing drugs and alcohol.

What is occurring now is that most schools have a one-time dramatic event showing the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but they do not provide the opportunity to educate or give an opportunity for students to talk.

It is time that we place an importance on the subject of addiction, as it has a direct effect on students and their families, and it also affects how our students learn and retain information. The message I heard from reading the BDN articles was students want to learn and talk about life’s challenges, which is not always academics.

The students who once spent time sharing in my office are now parents, employees, social workers and active members of our community. I am certainly not taking all the credit for their enormous success, and not all the students who wandered into my office were able to have healthy and happy lives, but what happened was an opportunity to provide them with a place to find themselves, be respected and have an adult listen.  

To all the kids of Pat’s room, thank you for letting me be part of your journey. It was a job I will treasure forever. I would encourage more school systems to create this opportunity for their students.

Pat Kimball of Hermon is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and the former executive director of Wellspring, a substance abuse treatment center in Bangor.