Kelly Scott was a natural choice to serve as advisor to The Empty Chair Project at Pikeville High School. 

The project, a mobile app and website that offers information and resources related to drug-addiction prevention, treatment and harm reduction, was created in 2017 by a team of students under Scott’s leadership.

A biology and environmental science teacher at the school with an enrollment of about 550, Scott was a good fit in that her own son has confronted addiction.

But, truth is, most everyone in Pikeville knows someone who has likewise struggled. “I doubt you could find 10 people in our school who are not affected personally,” Scott says.

Thus The Empty Chair Project, so named because, as the students attest on their website, “drug addiction leaves an empty chair in all parts of our lives.”

Prior to the launch of the project, team members were certainly aware of the toll addiction had taken, but not of the magnitude. 

“I didn’t realize how much of a problem this was for our community,” says rising-junior Sarah Belcher. “[The project] really opened my eyes.”

A Source of Education

Pikeville – located in eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry once thrived – is a pretty typical rural-America community. Friday night high school football games are big events. Hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities occupy weekends. 

And like so many other rural communities, Pikeville has been jolted by addiction. Pike County has one of the highest drug-mortality death rates in the state of Kentucky, which has the fourth highest rate in the country

Scott says that for a while it was mostly prescription opioids ravaging her community, then, when state and federal officials cracked down on prescriptions, heroin moved in. Now methamphetamines are on the rise. 

Sarah Belcher and three of her senior classmates – Lyndsie Bartley, Bailey Lovern and Olivia Whitfield – developed the app and website in partnership with Pikeville-based Bit Source, a software and website development company, after presenting their concept at a local hackathon. They were awarded a $1,000 grant from the University of Kentucky Center of Excellence in Rural Health and the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, an investment that Center of Excellence director Frances Feltner calls “the best investment the center has ever made.”

Feltner calls Scott a “phenomenal teacher.” 

“We didn’t want the teachers to make up the proposal, we wanted the students to,” she says, and Scott gave them that space. The students have since provided Feltner and her colleagues with advice on the development of future projects. 

The project’s app and website offer statistics, signs and symptoms of substance-abuse disorder and access to resources, including local treatment facilities, the Pike County Needle Exchange Program and the National Suicide Prevention lifeline. The project can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

“We wanted to create a place where resources could be found easily and quickly,” Scott says. “We wanted to educate, to try to hit it from the front end.”

Scott has seen the impact addiction is having on many of her students’ home lives. “They come to school and you expect them to have a pencil, when maybe they didn’t even have a meal the night before. You don’t know what these kids face when they walk out these doors.”

“I usually try to reach out with my personal family stories,” Scott says, “to let them know that I sort of know what they’re going through.” 

‘We Never Gave Up on Our Son’

Scott graduated from Pikeville High in 1986. “My husband and I started dating when he was a senior, and we’re still together. This town has always meant something to us.” 

The family moved to North Carolina for a little over a decade, but returned. “Here, we’re one big family.”

But Scott detected a change in the community upon her return, in 2010, one that soon hit home.

Her son, Billy Jack, a musician, now 26, has Tourette’s syndrome. 

“With Tourette’s, there’s lots of anxiety,” Scott says. Billy Jack grappled with depression, mood swings, deep frustration with tics and spasms. He turned to prescription painkillers, which were readily available throughout the community.

“He’ll say now that it was to self-medicate,” Scott says, “because he didn’t know how to deal with everything; he didn’t have the coping skills.”

Harrowing experiences – such as coming within eight feet of driving into a sludge pond – failed to deter him. Neither did trouble with the law. 

She recalls the day she went to pick Billy Jack up after an overnight stay in jail. He’d lost his glasses. “He was dirty; he was a mess.”

“Then when we got home and I was helping him change his clothes – because he was just hurt so bad – I saw that he had tire marks on his body,” Scott says “He had overdosed on Johns Creek and a car had run over him. And that is why he was picked up and saved. If they hadn’t hit him, nobody probably would have known he was there and he would have died right there on the road.”

“That’s why I tell him all the time, ‘You were saved for a reason. There’s greater things for you.’ That was his turning point. He said, ‘I’m not living this way. I’m not. I can’t put you all through this anymore. I can’t.’” He’s now successfully in recovery.

Many of Scott’s students are now being raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings. That’s changed the community culture a bit, she says, but the core still holds. A close-knit community has been shaken, but not broken.

You don’t give up on your loved ones, Scott asserts. “We never gave up on our son.”

A Small Town Resounds

The Pikeville High School students’ work hasn’t been confined to a digital space. They’re now also taking action in their community face-to-face.

In addition to The Empty Chair Project, students have launched a mentoring program, whereby juniors and seniors make themselves available to seventh-graders experiencing any number of issues – often bullying, but also hunger, neglect, a violent household, displacement, alienation. 

“We all know that those sorts of things can lead into addictions, when they want to try to do something to feel like they can fit in,” Scott says. “And so we try to address those, to let them feel good about themselves and try to solve any problem that we can so that they don’t feel that they have to do something else to fit into a crowd.”

“I think the younger seventh-graders just needed someone to listen to them. Just to say, ‘This is what’s going on with me. This is what my house is like,’” Scott says. “The mentors then know to say, ‘Does anybody else know about this?’” The students are taught the protocol for information that should be reported and who should receive it.

“They feel more comfortable talking to us than to a teacher,” says Bailey Lovern, who received scholarship money to attend Kentucky’s Georgetown College from Operation UNITE, an organization that addresses substance abuse with an active chapter at Pikeville High. “I think it’s good for them and for us.”

The Development District Association of Appalachia’s Don Myers Humanitarian Award. Photo: Courtesy The Empty Chair Project

The reception the project has received has surpassed the team members’ expectations, touching lives throughout their community and beyond. In March of last year, they were honored with a trip to Washington, D.C., to receive the Development District Association of Appalachia’s Don Myers Humanitarian Award. Past winners have included country music star and activist Dolly Parton.

“I’ve learned that even the smallest initiative can make such a big difference,” says Olivia Whitfield. “We never thought that what we did would end up spreading and helping as many people as we have.”

Lyndsie Bartley adds: “Even though we’ve grown up in this small town and you think that in a small town only the people here will know about you, or know anything that you’ve done, you can take something and turn it into something so much more than that.”

“Kids want to make a difference,” Scott affirms. “Kids want to see a change, and they like being part of that change.”

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.