Scarborough High School health teacher Mary Record uses the SEED program as part of her curriculum. Contributed / Mary Record

Many former high school students may remember their health teachers rolling in a TV and playing a VHS tape depicting a clear message: “drugs are bad, drugs can kill you.”

A Scarborough-based nonprofit is taking a fresh approach to educate Maine teens about substance use disorders, fight the stigma placed on those addicted and inspire people to seek recovery. With a $50,000 matching grant announced by the John T. Gorman Foundation last month, Students Empowered to End Dependency, or SEED, hopes to keep growing.

Dave and Karen Packhem of Scarborough founded SEED in 2020 after spending two years educating themselves on their adult son’s alcohol use disorder. What started with five schools taking part in the program has since doubled, with public schools in Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, Gorham, Westbrook, Yarmouth, Windham, Bath, York and Sanford participating.

The Packhems plan to keep expanding.

“The best way to avoid substance use disorder is to prevent it from starting in the first place,” Dave Packhem said in an interview with The Forecaster. “That means that our young people need to be very well-educated because they’ll be making their own choices. It’s always about buyer beware.”

Their mission to educate blossomed into a documentary series, “Voices of Hope,” featuring interviews with Mainers with substance use disorders who sought recovery, input from health experts, and the perspectives of Maine teenagers. Clips from the series are shown in SEED-participating schools. Rather than using fear to deter teenage substance use, the series champions storytelling, such as the story of Scarborough-native Justin Reid.


Justin Reid of Scarborough is a statewide recovery coach coordinator for Portland Recovery Community Center. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

‘Ability to change’

“Going into high school, I started to meet some older people and people that liked to party,” Reid said in an interview with The Forecaster. “Combining that with growing up at Higgins Beach, it was just kind of like a tradition amongst people that grow up there to go have a bonfire and take a few beers from your parents.”

But for Reid, that traditional high school behavior was the beginning of his slide into addiction. He turned from alcohol to cannabis and from cannabis to opiates. It wasn’t until the age of 29 and a sobering experience in jail that Reid finally sought help from a treatment center.

“I was in Cumberland County Jail and watched a gentleman pass away from overdosing,” he said. “I was in the process of trying to get some substances in jail, and he just happened to get those substances first and overdosed … I don’t know why it had to work out that way and be that severe, but when that happened, I just saw myself in that person.”

Reid, now sober for nearly eight years, is a statewide recovery coach coordinator at the Portland Recovery Community Center, working with recovery centers across Maine in building a sustainable coaching network. It was tough to tell his story for the documentary because he fears stigmatization, he said, but he feels it’s one of the best ways to fight the stigma.

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take to try to reduce that stigma for other people,” Reid said. “Sharing that story, hopefully, can demonstrate to some people that might stigmatize people that use drugs and say, ‘Well, maybe they do have the ability to change.’ I know they have the ability to change. I see it every day.”

Kathryn Morin works as a producer’s assistant on the “Voices of Hope” documentary series and said she has learned a lot along the way. Contributed / Kathryn Morin

Reid’s story is just one of many featured in “Voices of Hope” that have inspired fellow Mainers to seek recovery.


“This documentary has changed lives,” said Kathryn Morin, a Gorham High School graduate and filmmaking student at Southern Maine Community College who is a production assistant for the project. “We’ve gotten direct emails and calls and texts saying, because they’ve watched the documentary, they’re pursuing recovery now. It’s actively having a really positive impact on the community in Maine.”

Morin wanted to work on the project solely for the work experience, but that soon bred an interest in substance use disorder and sparked “a pretty big mental shift” for her on the issue.

“I knew substance use disorder was a problem but I was kind of scared of it. I didn’t understand it at all,” Morin said. “Through working on the documentary, meeting these people, it really changed my perspective of it. It’s just another illness people have.”

Fear versus helping 

Morin’s initial perspective is a normal one.

In Scarborough, passers-by may encounter people under the influence along Payne Road, the police department’s social services coordinator said. It can be scary, but those brief encounters don’t give the full picture of addiction.

“It’s a fearful (reaction) versus ‘how do we reach out to that other person and meet them where they’re at so that potentially they can live this road to recovery,'” Lauren Dembski-Martin told The Forecaster.


Packhem agrees.

Dave Packhem, right, founder of Students Empowered to End Dependency, works with Charlie Moore as they record music for the documentary series “Voices of Hope.” Contributed / Dave Packhem

“When you treat those people with some respect first, you learn that the old idea of ‘well, just stop it. Straighten yourself out, for crying out loud,’ doesn’t work,” he said.

When people hear about the science of substance abuse disorders, “I think the audience goes, ‘Oh. Huh,’” he said.

Many substances cause a “hyper-release” of dopamine, according to the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, and when used frequently, a person’s body can become physically dependent upon them. Even when a person understands the consequences of excessive use on their health and relationships and its impact on their work or school responsibilities, a substance use disorder makes them disregard the repercussions.

While the severity of symptoms may vary, drug dependency often looks similar, whether that’s alcohol, cannabis, or stimulants like caffeine. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, for example, include headaches, nausea and mood swings, as well as feelings of anxiousness, irritability, and depression, according to the CDC. Those are also caffeine withdrawal symptoms, a stimulant 80% of Americans use daily, the FDA says.

Like caffeine, Packhem believes cannabis use is on its way to being normalized since being legalized in Maine and, as with the tobacco and alcohol industries, young consumers are essential to their businesses.


“Once the brain is fully developed in the mid to late 20s, it’s much harder to form an attachment to addictive substances,” Packhem said. “So, businesses that benefit from addiction need two things to be sustainable: a highly potent addictive chemical and regular use among 10-to 25-year-olds.”

According to the Addiction Policy Forum, 90% of Americans with substance use disorders started using before the age of 18.

According to the most recent Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey in 2019, two-thirds of Maine high school students said they believe there is little to no risk in using cannabis once or twice per week. The survey also found that 36% of Maine high schoolers have used cannabis, 22% in the last 30 days, and 53% said they believe cannabis is easy to get if they wanted it.

In a survey conducted by the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy last spring, 41% of the 1,129 participants said they used cannabis in the past month. Over 47% of those users said they used it every day, with another 14.2% saying they used cannabis 20 to 29 days per month.

“In my view, these facts, together with easy access to high potency cannabis, guarantees that Maine will soon be facing another health crisis brought to us by companies that profit from an unhealthy attachment to their products,” Packhem said. “In the alternative, Mainers can better protect our extremely vulnerable student population by insisting on more rational cannabis regulation and more robust and effective health education beginning in elementary school.”

The Voices of Hope series had an impact on Scarborough High School students in health teacher Mary Record’s classes last spring. While she stresses that her results are preliminary, Record took an anonymous survey of some of her students after their substance abuse unit, which included clips from the documentary. She found that “very few believed there was little to no risk” in using cannabis one to two times per week – drastically less than the 67% who found there to be little to no risk in Maine’s Integrated Youth Health Survey.


Seeing the impact 

“Voices of Hope enhances my curriculum as it gives students real, relevant and highly relatable stories from young people in their community, which provokes compassion and brings connection to those who watch,” Record wrote in an email to The Forecaster. “The series acknowledges and validates the real reasons young people start using drugs initially, which is a necessary (and often ignored) piece of education, and it is the part that gets young people to hear, believe and trust the person and their story.”

Voices of Hope has been collaborating with the Scarborough Police Department and their treatment program Operation Hope since the beginning. Without the partnership, Packhem doesn’t believe the project would have been possible.

“We had this Department of Public Safety grant which helped to fund the initial Voices of Hope episodes,” Dembski-Martin said. “This last round (of funding), what they decided was they were going to kind of pull back on any funding except for treatment. So, we’re utilizing that grant right now for Operation Hope, which is why we’re really trying to advocate in terms of keeping “Voices of Hope” going because it’s so crucial.”

With the matching grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation, “Voices of Hope” will be able to grow its stock of 12, half-hour episodes, further develop the curriculum for SEED-enrolled schools, and hope to expand the number of schools participating from 10 to 20.

To donate towards John T. Gorman Foundation’s matching $50,000 grant, mail a donation to SEED, PO Box 1561, Scarborough, ME. You can also donate, and view the documentary series, at

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