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Helping My Community Take Action to Overcome and Heal from the Opioid Epidemic

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Each year, Equal Justice Works hosts its Annual Dinner to celebrate its Fellows and honor a leader in the legal community who shares a commitment to public service and passion for equal justice. Hearing from the Equal Justice Works Fellows is always a highlight of the evening and this year was no exception.

At the 2019 Annual Dinner, we heard some inspiring stories about the work of Fellows and the incredible impact their service has on individuals, families, and communities. One of the most memorable moments of the dinner occurred when 2019 Text-to-Give Fellow Brendan Wood shared how his Fellowship project was born from a deeply personal experience of the opioid epidemic.

Here is Brendan’s story in his own words:

It is an honor to be the Fellow supported by last year’s Text-to-Give campaign.

To tell you the truth, I am surprised to be even be standing here tonight. I am the demographic that is dying in our country’s opioid epidemic. I grew up in West Virginia, where my family, like so many others, struggled to keep their head above the water.

When I look back on my childhood, it’s hard to forget the lessons I learned from the situation my family was in. I learned that when the heat is out for months, the trick is to put your head in the shower first, so that the rest of your body can absorb the shock of the cold water more easily. I learned that if you ask your teachers what adult words—and no, I don’t mean the fun ones—but words like “mortgage” and “creditors” mean, they’ll sit you down and ask you serious questions.

When I was 14, my older brother overdosed. I remember my mother waking me up because my brother was unconscious on the couch in our garage. I remember my parents taking him to a hospital, where he spent weeks confined to a bed with multiple tubes down his throat. We stayed in a Ronald McDonald house, with many other poor families who were also hoping someone close to them would wake up.

Those days, the whole world felt like putting my head into a cold shower…only that shock took a lot longer to get used to.

You see, I was only in 8th grade, and my entire understanding of drugs came from DARE commercials. I didn’t know how real they were—I never expected something like this could happen in my own family. This realization shattered my sense of security and my innocence.

It took me many more years to understand that this is happening everywhere to families of every background, but that shame and stigma too often keep families from seeking help. The opioid crisis shatters the innocence and peace of American families just like mine.

This was my reality of living, of growing up in a community seized by the relentless grip of addiction.

Following my brother’s overdose, year after year, more and more of my childhood friends died by the bottle, blade, line, or pill, and I had to relive the same awful feelings. Somehow, I found a way to get through it. I mourned their losses and told myself to push past the fear, push past the exhaustion and emotions, and just keep going.

At the time, I can’t say I knew what was motivating me other than survival. As I stand before you today, I think I always knew I had to get out so that I could come back and serve my community… to try and make it better.

West Virginia is the epicenter of the opioid crisis, but there’s no profession, community, or class that is beyond its grip.

In college and then in law school, I met others like me along the way—other students from communities struggling with addiction, who had beat the odds to be there. We were all very close to becoming statistics. When you get past something like that, you have two options:

  • you can run away and find some place better, or
  • you can turn around and try to fix it.
Photo of 2019 Text-to-Give Fellow Brendan Wood speaking at the 2019 Equal Justice Works Annual Dinner

I love my home state, and if you’ve ever seen the rolling hills from Cooper’s Rock, then you know why John Denver had so much to sing about. If you’ve ever had a stranger help you with car trouble in the middle of nowhere or a neighbor invite you in for coffee, you know what kind of honest, caring, hardworking people live in our mountains and valleys. I don’t knock anyone for wanting to leave in search of greater opportunity, but I had to stay. If I can help even one family like mine, I’ll know that I didn’t turn my back on Appalachia.

I became a lawyer so that I could help my community take action to overcome and heal from the opioid epidemic.

At Legal Aid of West Virginia, I help individuals struggling with opioid addiction in their efforts to secure employment, housing, and economic stability, and provide them with the tools they need to survive, recover, and succeed.

Having come from little, I know what it takes to try to move beyond what you were born into. Sure, it takes force of will and focus, but above all, it takes many pairs of open hands reaching out, and words of encouragement to back them up. I had role models and inspirational figures in my life. Now I am determined to be that role model for others!

Words can’t express how grateful I am to Nathan, Equal Justice Works, to Legal Aid of West Virginia, and to all the people who sat in your seats last year for making my work possible.

Thank you.

Relive the night with our 2019 Annual Dinner Highlights

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow