WINDHAM — Maine’s newly appointed director of opioid response encouraged a group of Windham seventh graders in their quest to take on Maine’s opioid epidemic at a panel discussion March 5, saying “it’s really about finding out why people abuse substances in the first place.”

The panel was the kickoff event for “Take Back Maine’s Future,” a project-based learning unit the group of over 60 seventh graders will be tackling in the next two months.

The topic of this year’s unit is the opioid epidemic, and the theme is “Back to the Future.” Students will learn about the issue in their classes and from a variety of angles; then, they will write fictional newspapers about two different futures for Maine: one in which the opioid crisis has been solved and one in which current trends continue without solution.

“They get to think about, what are the solutions? They might come up with some cool ideas that no one’s thought of yet,” seventh-grade teacher AJ Ruth said in an interview.

Ruth is one of the team of three teachers whose students are undertaking the project. The others are Gwendolyn Roberts and Douglas Elder.

As teachers, we do “not try to raise students who someday can make an impact but view you as community members right now who can make an impact right now,” Elder told the students at the event Tuesday afternoon.

Laura Morris, executive director of Be the Influence, introduced Dr. Gordon Smith, the state’s first director of opiod response. BTI, a parenting program that seeks to reduce teen alcohol and drug use, hosted the kickoff event.

Smith said the opioid epidemic is “Governor Mills’ most important issue.”

He quizzed the students by writing down numbers and asking them what they thought they represented. For instance, 908 is the number of babies who were born in Maine in 2018 to mothers who were addicted.

He urged the students to focus on prevention, saying “it’s really about finding out why people abuse substances in the first place.”

Despite the grim statistics, Smith said, there is hope for the future.

“You have the opportunity to help the state of Maine,” he encouraged the group.

A panel of experts answered students’ questions. Panel members were Windham Chief of Police Kevin Schofield; District Attorney for Cumberland County Jonathan Sahrbeck; Bridget Rauscher, who runs the Overdose Prevention Project for Cumberland and York counties; Windham Police Capt. Bill Andrew; Windham Deputy Fire Chief John Kooistra; and Nicole Ellis, who is the project coordinator for BTI and in recovery herself.

“In my school, they didn’t cover anything to do with addiction in the curriculum at all. I think had they done something as awesome as what you guys are doing, it could have really prevented a lot of people from going down the wrong path,” Ellis said.

Schofield told the students about Narcan, a medication that can reverse the effects of a drug overdose.

Kooistra stressed that “education is key and getting folks involved as early as possible to understand what the problem is, the root causes of the problem so that we can start to work together to help alleviate the problem.”

Elder urged students to brace themselves for difficult conversations.

“Have you ever said to yourself, ‘When are people going to stop treating me like a little kid and start talking to me like an adult?’” he asked the group.

The answer is “right now. Guys, we’re going to talk about the tough, tough questions, and I hope you’re ready.”

“Our big hope,” Ruth said, “is because they know about it, they’re going to make informed decisions someday when they’re faced with someone offering a drug. Maybe we changed their minds.”

This is the second year that the seventh grade has held the “Take Back Maine’s Future” project. Last year, the project gained national recognition with an invitation to the National Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America conference in Washington, D.C.

The culminating event — the presention of the students’ newspapers — will take place in May and will feature the DeLorean time machine from the “Back to the Future” franchise.

Jane Vaughan can be reached at 780-9103 or at [email protected]

Capt. Bill Andrew of the Windham Police Department, left, Bridget Rauscher, who runs the Overdose Prevention Project for Cumberland and York Counties, and District Attorney for Cumberland County Jonathan Sahrbeck answer students’ questions.

Maine’s Director of Opioid Response Dr. Gordon Smith addresses a group of seventh graders at Windham high school Tuesday afternoon.