By Keysha Drexel
When friends from her Sunday School class knocked on the door of her Vestavia Hills home in the middle of the day last spring, Beverly Mims said she knew something was wrong.
“I had felt uneasy that morning, like something was off. My heart skipped a beat when I heard them at the door,” Mims said. “They had my husband, Ronnie on the phone and told me he needed to talk to me. But I never dreamed that what he would say was that our son was dead.”
In the year and a half since her 20-year-old son, Baker, died of a heroin overdose, Mims said she’s come to view that knock on the door in March 2013 as the moment that her life changed forever—and a wake-up call to the Over the Mountain community.
“Baker was a good kid from a good family in a good neighborhood, but he made a bad choice and he paid for it with his life,” she said. “If it can happen to my son, it can happen to anyone’s child.”
In an effort to spread the message that good kids like Baker Mims can make fatally bad choices when it comes to drugs and alcohol, Leadership Vestavia Hills is partnering with the city and the Vestavia Hills Board of Education for Help the Hills, a series of meetings aimed at fostering an open dialogue about drug and alcohol abuse with parents, educators and community leaders. The first meeting in the Help the Hills series will be a Town Hall meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 16 at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church.
“Educating the whole child goes beyond the classroom. We all play a part in the health and well-being of our youth,” Vestavia Hills City Schools Superintendent Sheila Phillips said. “Our children need to know that we’re in this together—for their protection.”
Sgt. Joel Gaston with the Vestavia Hills Police Department said the city has had four drug-related deaths in 2014.
“We’ve got a problem and we know it,” Mayor Alberto “Butch” Zaragoza said earlier this year.
Vestavia Hills is not the only Over the Mountain city adopting community-wide initiatives to cope with the increase in drug and alcohol abuse in teens and young adults. And it is not the only city to lose young people to overdoses.
Capt. Gregg Rector of the Hoover Police Department said there have been six drug-related deaths in Hoover so far this year.
“That’s six too many,” he said. “If we keep up at this pace, we’ll have even more drug deaths this year than we did last year.”
Rector said there were four drug-related deaths in Hoover in 2013, five in 2012 and five in 2011.
In the past, the Hoover Coalition Promoting a Safe and Healthy Community also worked with city and school officials to offer forums on drugs and alcohol.
The Hoover City Schools Student Services division hosts panel discussions and presentations on synthetic marijuana, underage drinking, bullying, social media safety and other topics.
The school system will hold a panel discussions and presentations on social media by police officers for parents of middle and high school students on Aug. 17 and Aug. 19 at Spain Park High School and Aug. 24 and Aug. 26 at Hoover High School.
The Hoover school system, like other Over the Mountain school systems, also conducts drug and alcohol use surveys with students each year.
The Homewood community started a youth drug prevention coalition a little over 18 months ago, said Carissa Anthony, prevention and development coordinator for Homewood City Schools.
“The school district had been doing drug and alcohol awareness initiatives before, but we wanted to take that a step further and embrace the whole community,” Anthony said. “I think in order to effectively change perceptions and behaviors so that our kids are making healthy choices, we need to make sure they hear consistent messages from every direction–from home, at school, from their friends, from their faith communities, from their athletic leagues. That message to our kids is this: We love you, we care about you and we have high expectations of you, and here’s how we want to help you make healthy choices.”
That community-wide approach is also at work in the Mountain Brook Anti-Drug Coalition, said Dale Wisely, director of student services at Mountain Brook City Schools.
“We actually have plans to broaden the mission of that organization, to make it even more broadly community-based, and we will rename it All In Mountain Brook,” said Wisely, who will speak at the Vestavia Hills Town Hall Meeting Aug. 16. “This is a partnership between the school system, city government, the Mountain Brook business community and worship communities.”
Lt. Jay Williams with the Mountain Brook Police Department said there has been one drug-related death in Mountain Brook since July 1, 2013.
In Shelby County, the department of student services at Shelby County Schools offers drug abuse prevention programs, conducts drug and alcohol use surveys with students and offers peer helper and family intervention programs.
As of June 30, Shelby County had 16 drug-related deaths, said Lt. Kevin Turner with the Shelby County Drug Task Force. Shelby County had 52 drug-related deaths in 2013.
In addition to investigating complaints of illegal narcotics activity and arresting offenders and aiding in their prosecution, the Shelby County Drug Task Force also presents educational programs to civic organizations and schools.
“Drug abuse has no boundaries. It affects all economic levels and social groups,” Turner said.
That’s something Susan Thomas of Vestavia Hills said she had to learn the hard way.
Thomas, her husband and her three sons–now 22, 19 and 17–have lived just doors down from the Mims family for 18 years.
“Our families have always had so much in common, but I never imagined that drug addiction would affect either family,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ oldest son and Baker Mims were childhood friends and later attended Vestavia Hills High School together.
“My oldest son and Baker were one month and two days apart in age. Beverly and I were both stay-at-home moms. Our husbands were both involved in coaching the sports teams and in Boy Scouts, and we’re all active in church,” Thomas said. “We thought we were doing all we could to make sure our children knew to stay away from drugs.”
But in January 2010, a friend of her son’s dropped a bombshell on Thomas when she asked him if he knew why her son had been moody.
“I thought my son was just a little down, maybe a little depressed, and so his best friend was over at the house and I asked him if he knew what was going on,” Thomas said. “His friend just looked at me and said, ‘I think he needs to go to rehab,’ and I was just in shock, just stunned.”
That night, Thomas learned that her son had started taking prescription pain pills and smoking marijuana the summer before and that he’d been trying to wean himself off the painkillers. Months later, she learned heroin was among the many drugs her son had tried while he was in high school.
“This was a sweet, respectful child who had never been in trouble, who never had bad grades. This is a child who came home at curfew every night and who, when he came in to tell me goodnight, I would smell his hair and his breath and look at his eyes, not because I had any idea he was on drugs but because I thought that’s what parents were supposed to do,” she said. “I did all the things I thought I was supposed to do, but I still missed it.”
Thomas said while she had talked to her children about the dangers of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana, she said she doesn’t remember prescription pills or heroin being on her radar.
“I remember seeing something on the news before I knew that my son had tried heroin about how it was making a comeback and that more kids were using heroin, and I remember thinking, ‘Thank heavens we don’t have that problem here in Vestavia.’ I think a lot parents think that.”
That’s what Mims said she thought.
“After he (Baker) graduated from high school (in 2011), we found out that he had tried pot, so we cut off his access to money, took his car away from him and gave him drug tests, but I had no idea he had even tried heroin until after he died,” she said.
In the weeks before his death, Mims said Baker, who was attending UA on a full academic scholarship, seemed excited about his classes and the future.
“He had plans, and I thought we were over the hump with the marijuana. A few days before he passed, he called me and told me that he had gotten his hair cut short again,” she said. “I never got to see his new haircut until his funeral.”
Mims said she plans to attend the Help the Hills Town Hall meeting Aug. 18, and even though it’s difficult to talk about, she wants to share her story with other parents.
“During his life, Baker touched so many people. He was a volunteer with the special needs kids at school, and they just loved him. He really enjoyed giving back in any way he could,” she said. “And I feel like he’s still doing that and that God is still using Baker to make an impact on people and to show the dangers of even experimenting with drugs. My son never got the chance to learn from his mistakes.”
Thomas said she also plans to attend the meeting but that her son is not ready to talk about his addiction struggles, even though he has been clean for more than four and half years now.
“He has a lot of shame, and it’s a daily struggle,” she said. “That’s what our kids have to realize, what our parents have to really think about, too–even if you don’t die from a drug overdose and you’re lucky enough to get help in time, drug addiction is something you will deal with for the rest of your life, one way or another.”
Information on drug-related deaths this year in Homewood was not available at press time.ϖ