How One Rural Community Is Fighting to Save Lives from Drug Overdose

By Tessie Castillo 07/16/18

“I don’t want another parent to pick out a casket. I don’t want another grandparent to have to look a grandchild in the eye and say ‘your momma is gone.’”

Margaret Bordeaux gets supplies from the trunk of a car.
“I want to care for people that society doesn’t care for. People use superficial reasons to ignore each other and I want to remove those reasons and say, hey, there is a person here.” Image via Author

The Driftwood Motel on Oak Island, North Carolina, has seen better days. All around it, pastel-colored vacation homes with kitschy names like After Dune Delight reel in tourists with promises of beachfront sunsets and shaded hammocks by the pier. Though the Driftwood Motel is also painted in cheerful pastels, the paint is flaking off in dry strips and littering the ground next to cigarette butts and busted beer bottles. Rhonda C. lives on the bottom floor of the Driftwood with her bed, couch and kitchen furniture crammed into a room with dark sheets that cover the windows. She is one of the motel’s many long-term residents - people drawn in by the $100 a week price tag who end up staying far longer than they had planned. A gray-haired, matronly woman, Rhonda looks after the other residents, especially the young ones who drift in and out in various stages of inebriation. She hadn’t been able to offer them much, until she met Margaret Bordeaux.

Margaret is a petite, African American woman, quiet and unassuming until you get to know her fiery side. As an outreach worker for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, Margaret runs a mobile harm reduction unit in Brunswick County, a sparsely populated rural community hugging North Carolina’s Southeast coast. Brunswick is also one of the counties hardest hit by drug-related deaths in the state. At least once a week Margaret drives its lonely roads, seeking out places like the Driftwood Motel that collect people who have lost every other home. Thanks to a grant from the Aetna Foundation to combat the opioid epidemic, Margaret has a van stocked with supplies to help reduce drug-related death and disease. She gives out naloxone (a medicine that reverses overdose from opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and prescription painkillers), syringes, and other resources, and she teaches people how to prevent, recognize and respond to an overdose.

“I make friends and develop relationships in Brunswick County,” says Margaret. “Many of the people I’ve met here thought that naloxone and clean syringes were magical things only available in [cities]. No one has been coming out here to offer these services until now.”

Some people are wary when Margaret first pulls up because they have been treated poorly by health care workers and aren’t accustomed to a warm, non-judgmental person offering them free services. But after a few visits, Margaret wins them over.

“My whole life I have rooted for the underdog and the underserved,” says Margaret. “I want to care for people that society doesn’t care for. People use superficial reasons to ignore each other and I want to remove those reasons and say, hey, there is a person here.”

Kathy Williams is one of the people whose lives Margaret has touched. A middle-aged, Caucasian woman with a defiant personality, Kathy’s backstory is the stuff of nightmares. She raised two kids as a single mom, Josh and Kirby. As an adult, Josh married a wonderful woman and had two children. Kirby struggled with drug use, and whenever she hit a rough spot, Josh and his wife would take her in and help her get back on her feet. But in 2011, Josh’s car was t-boned by a school bus. He, his wife, and both their young children died in the crash. The loss hit Kirby hard. Her drug use escalated and five years later, she too died of a drug overdose.Kathy Williams

Kathy tells this story completely dry-eyed. It’s as though she has endured so much pain that nothing can faze her anymore. These days she is raising her 14-year-old grandson, Kirby’s child, and also caring for her own aging parents. She is also one of the founding members of B.A.C.K. O.F.F., an organization of Brunswick County families who are fed up with losing their loved ones to drugs. What started as a support group in March 2017 has morphed into an organization with a mission to educate people about the realities of drug use and to help save lives.

“A mother is not supposed to bury her child,” says Kathy. “I don’t want another parent to pick out a casket. I don’t want another grandparent to have to look a grandchild in the eye and say ‘your momma is gone.’”

B.A.C.K. O.F.F., which stands for Bringing Addiction Crisis Knowledge, Offering Families Focus, makes and distributes overdose prevention kits containing naloxone to families with a loved one who uses opioids. They also spread awareness about North Carolina’s 911 Good Samaritan law, which protects people from prosecution if they seek medical assistance for an overdose. B.A.C.K. O.F.F. members provide community, resources and support for families impacted by drugs and offer space for honest talk about drug use. No denial, no sugarcoating, no pithy slogans about just saying no. Real talk from real families caught in the same struggle. But not everyone is willing to speak up.

Elsewhere in Brunswick County, Alex Murillo has been trying to convince Hispanic parents who have lost child to drug poisoning to get involved in B.A.C.K. O.F.F. It hasn’t been easy.

“Many Hispanics here deny that drug use is happening in their families,” says Alex, who recently lost his 19-year-old nephew to overdose. “If a parent loses a child to overdose, they say they died in their sleep. No one wants to talk about it.”

A tall, dimpled man with a perpetual smile, Alex’s cheerful demeanor hides a tragic history. Alex is originally from Mexico. When he was brutally raped at 12 years old, his parents threw him out of the house, claiming he deserved to be raped because he “acted gay.” At 15 years old, Alex married a girl, but the marriage made him so miserable that he decided to come to the United States where he hoped to be able to express himself more freely. At the border he was apprehended by a human trafficking cartel and forced into sex slavery.

“They forced me to take drugs. They beat me and pimped me out,” he says. “I was so shocked. I didn’t think things like that happened in the U.S.”

Alex eventually escaped. He tried to join a church community but was turned away after admitting he was gay. He attempted suicide, but his brother found him passed out from a bottle of sleeping pills and took him to the hospital. When Alex woke days later, his attitude on life had changed.

“I was surprised to be alive,” he says. “But I realized that I was still here for a reason and I decided to dedicate my life to helping other people.”

Alex MurilloToday Alex owns a small Hispanic tienda in Brunswick County where he offers help to anyone who comes to his doorstep, whether they are seeking food, advice, or help paying rent. Every year he hosts a multicultural festival in his store parking lot, though other Brunswick County residents have threatened to shut it down because they are unhappy with the area’s growing diversity. He is also happily married to his husband, who works in the store and supports Alex’s outreach efforts. Alex hopes to become more involved in educating the Hispanic community about drugs.

“We can’t just ignore this problem. The drugs are in our schools. They are everywhere,” says Alex. “We need to do more outreach to the Hispanic community to teach them how to talk about drugs with their kids. They can’t just tell kids not to do drugs. Kids see their friends doing it and they want to try too. We need to have honest conversations as a community.”

Margaret, Kathy and Alex may be an unlikely team, but together they are working to bring resources and hope to a county that has suffered devastating loss. Little by little, their efforts are making a difference. Margaret has helped people enter drug treatment programs and reconnect with family members where ties had been severed. Alex is making headway on opening up conversations about drugs in the Hispanic community. B.A.C.K. O.F.F. provides Kathy with an outlet to teach families how to help their loved ones who use drugs.

“I used to look at a person who uses drugs as an addict, but now I look at them as someone’s brother, son or family member,” says Kathy. “I feel that if we had had these tools like naloxone, overdose education, and a support group years ago, my daughter might still be alive today.”

At a small Mexican diner where we meet for lunch, I ask Kathy what her message is to people in rural communities impacted by drugs. For a moment, she is quiet. Finally she says:

“I want people to know they are not alone. You might think you are alone, but there are so many of us going through the same thing. We can hold each other up.”

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Tessie Castillo is a writer and drug policy advocate in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her articles explore topics such as criminal justice reform, drug policy, and harm reduction. Castillo previously served as the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a statewide nonprofit that advances drug policy and criminal justice reform. During that time, she played a pivotal role in helping to legalize syringe exchange programs and expand access to naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose. Find Tessie at her website or on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.