The Atascadero Greyhound Foundation LIGHTHOUSE Committee takes the battle to the front lines

Lori Bagby doesn’t think her son knew how dangerous opioids could be.

“Opioids are just so scary because it is so easy to become addicted,” she said. “It is something that can sneak up on you, and you’re addicted without really even knowing how it happened.”

The chair of Lighthouse Atascadero, which aims to combat drug addictions and drug use, Bagby knows the frightening power of opioid addiction: Her son, Jake Gearhart – a former Atascadero high School athlete — died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2012. He was just 21.

Sadly, she’s not the only one with a personal tragedy to share.

“I lost my son to drugs,” said Jim Stecher, president of the Atascadero Greyhound Foundation, which includes the Lighthouse program. “I lost my brother to drugs.”

The loss of Jake Gearhart and 29-year-old Matt Stecher in 2004 helped inspire the creation of Lighthouse Atascadero, which has changed the mission of the Greyhound Foundation.

Three months after Gearhart died, one of his friends died from an overdose. Donn Clickard, who helped create the foundation, spoke at the funeral and mentioned Lighthouse. 

Bagby approached him afterward. 

“Lighthouse was just getting started, and I asked Donn Clickard how I could be of help,” Bagby recalled. 

“She didn’t realize she was going to become the chairman,” said Clickard, a longtime educator and current school board member. “She didn’t even want to speak in public, but now she has.”

While celebrity deaths, like Michael Jackson’s, shocked the public, few knew how widespread opioid use had become.

“The prescription drugs were definitely what caused my son’s addiction, and you didn’t hear about it in the news at the time, so he didn’t know to be fearful of taking drugs although, of course, he knew it was wrong,” Bagby said. “I believe kids think they can ‘dabble’ in drugs and uploads, and it’s just not how it is.”

“They think they can play with it and get off it any time they want,” Stecher added. 

Lighthouse Atascadero aims to raise awareness of the dangers of drug addiction and use with educational resources, a reality tour, mentoring and more. But it also offers intervention for those battling addiction. That includes therapy during school hours and a wellness center.

“Backed by cutting edge research and tools, Lighthouse counseling helps youth explore their own motivations for staying clean, even being an example to others,” said Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno, who is also on the Lighthouse Committee.

The mentoring program (L.A.M.P.), pairing high schoolers with middle school-aged students, helps attack the problem early, said Rolfe Nelson, president elect and treasurer of the foundation. Getting to kids as young as 10-13 is crucial, he said. 

“If you get into drugs or alcohol at that age, for many it’s a lifelong battle,” Nelson said. 

Part of the awareness also includes a reality tour, which takes participants through the experience of a fictional teen addicted to drugs. The tour includes dramatizations of an arrest, overdose and funeral.

“It’s very emotional,” Nelson said.

Local police and fire personnel say the Lighthouse program has helped reduce the number of overdoses and drug-related deaths locally.  But success is a less celebratory concept with addictions, Clickard said.

“To me, our success is difficult because how do you measure the success of the funeral you didn’t go to last Saturday?”  

Clickard knows there’s no easy answer to combat youth drug use. But Lighthouse has adopted several approaches that Clickard hopes will become a model for other communities, just as Iceland’s efforts to curb youth drug use has.

“It’s not just about ‘don’t do drugs,’” he said. “It’s about making good decisions.”

And relationships, he said, plus problem solving and healthy distractions, like music and art.

Carol Gobler is writing a book about Lighthouse’s successes and stories, and Clickard wants the organization to create a tutorial book that will help direct other communities create their own Lighthouse. 

“Everybody’s got this problem,” Clickard said. “So you’d better deal with it.”

Clickard has been a major mentor, Bagby said. 

“If it weren’t for Donn, I personally would not have had the confidence to do a lot of the great work that I do for Lighthouse,” she said. 

Her work also helps her cope with Jake’s passing – especially when she can help other families.

“I hope by hearing my story, people will not have the attitude of ‘not my kid,’ as it really can happen to any family,” she said. “I know of many families whose kids seemed like they had it all going on – college athletic scholarships, lots of friends, family support – only to get caught up in addiction.”

Even caring parental involvement is sometimes not enough to save a child with addiction issues. But, Bagby said, she offers an understanding voice for those going through the struggle.

“It’s tough because I just wish I could fix it for them, and I can’t and really don’t have answers, but I can offer them resources and someone who understands.”

Getting through this together, Atascadero