Chris Herren, shown in this provided photo, spoke at Caribou High School on Wednesday to kick-start a program aimed at educating students about addiction. Credit: Courtesy of Aroostook Mental Health Services Inc.

CARIBOU, Maine — Not every student sitting in Caribou High School’s auditorium Wednesday may have wanted to hear Chris Herren’s story of substance use disorder.

But for some, his story could be the catalyst for changing their lives.

Amid growing local conversations about substance use and recovery, Herren, a former basketball player for the Boston Celtics, hoped to shift the message from that of hopelessness to inspiration. That message has become all the more important, as schools help students move on from the more isolated COVID-19 years and work to incorporate more in-person drug and alcohol prevention programs.

While speaking to more than 800 students from 13 Aroostook high schools throughout the day, Herren shared his struggles with addiction, which began at age 14 and continued throughout his early basketball career.

“I sat in an auditorium like this one during this same type of presentation in 1994 and thought, ‘This is a joke. I will never be like these people,'” Herren told students. “I would give anything to go back to 1994 and listen.”

As a teen, Herren turned to alcohol to cope with depression and anxiety brought about in part by his own father’s alcoholism. Despite being a star high school and college basketball player, Herren’s drug use escalated from cocaine to opioids to heroin.

Herren had a successful basketball career, playing first for Boston College and Fresno State University before joining the Denver Nuggets in the NBA. He was then drafted into the Boston Celtics, his hometown team, but continued struggling with addiction even as his career flourished and his family grew.

After a near-fatal overdose in 2008, Herren committed to rehab and has since remained sober. In 2011, he started The Herren Project, a nonprofit that provides treatment, recovery and prevention resources for individuals and families dealing with the impact of substance use disorder.

As part of his work, Herren travels to schools throughout the country to tell his story and encourage students to reflect on their choices before they become destructive.

“We always talk [to kids] about what happened to someone because of addiction,” Herren said. “What we don’t ask them is, ‘Why do you feel the need to do drugs or drink? What makes you think that [addiction] won’t happen to you?'”

No one asked Herren those questions when he was coming of age in Fall River, Massachusetts, a former mill town where substance use among teens had become more prevalent.

But he wishes someone had reached out to him. Or that he had had the courage to seek help sooner, like the teenage girl who emailed him early in his public speaking career about her family’s struggles with depression, alcoholism and self-harm.

“If anything, I want there to be one kid here today who goes to their guidance counselor or somebody to get help,” Herren said.

Herren’s talk in Caribou became possible thanks to a $1 million federal Health Resources and Services Administration Grant, said Erik Lamoreau, project coordinator for Aroostook Mental Health Center.

Part of the grant funds will go toward bringing Herren Project Clubs into local schools. Clubs are geared toward middle and high school students and host activities to start conversations about addiction and embracing positive behaviors.

After two years of pandemic-related stresses, AMHC has been working with schools to ensure that they have more resources and time to address substance use and related mental health issues, Lamoreau said.

“During COVID, schools were so focused on making sure school was able to happen They didn’t always have the time to understand what students were going through,” Lamoreau said. “We knew we needed to step up the game and get to know these students more.”

As students filtered out of Caribou High School’s auditorium, many noted how Herren’s story inspired them to live a healthy life.

“It wasn’t exactly what I expected, but in a good way,” said Preston DeFratus, a sophomore from Wisdom High School in St. Agatha. “The seriousness of [Heren’s situation] stuck with me. Like, if you ever get a chance [to do drugs or alcohol], don’t. It ruins people’s lives.”

Houlton High School sophomore Emily Bushey said that she felt particularly moved when Herren recalled separating from his wife and children for one year before becoming fully sober.

“I can’t imagine being away from family that long,” Bushey said. “Seeing how that affected him so deeply shows us how drugs ruin relationships.

For others, like Caribou ninth-grader Brynne Hamilton, Herren’s story was a reminder of what many friends and peers have struggled with in recent years.

“I hope they know that someone is there for them and that they can get help,” Hamilton said.