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FIRST PERSON: Trail of Tears – Finding Hope and Healing

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Journey Start Date: March 24, 2018

Miles completed: 917

Miles to go: 1,273

ELKTON—Heather Starbuck is on a journey. A young woman from Colorado, she is now passing through Virginia as she hikes the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Alone and far from home out here in Shenandoah National Park, the purpose of her journey gives her the strength and courage to endure the trail’s hardships. Heather is hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise awareness about opioid addiction and the precious lives that are being lost to overdoses every day.

And each lost life is precious.

Heather knows firsthand the devastating pain of losing a loved one to addiction. Her fiancé Matt died of a heroin overdose back in September. A mere six months later, she began this trek in his memory. There is no doubt that Matt is with her every step of the way.

Along the way, from Georgia to Maine, she is visiting various rehabilitation and transitional programs, and meeting with people who have experienced this same pain and loss—yet are working to bring change. Somehow, she found me on the internet as she was mapping out her trip, we connected, and I’ve been looking forward to meeting ever since.

I lost my 23-year-old son Joseph to an overdose of cocaine/fentanyl in October and started a Facebook group, Culpeper Overdose Awareness, with a goal similar to Heather’s, to raise awareness of the opioid problem in Culpeper and help find solutions. I was honored to join her for a small portion of her hike, along with my husband and some friends from the Restore Culpeper group. We met Tuesday at our planned spot, the Bearfence Trail, which has special meaning to my family. It is the last trail we hiked as a family before Joe died, and where we held a memorial hike in his memory.

On the trail we instantly fell in step with each other. Once perfect strangers, our hearts blended, each fully understanding the other’s pain and purpose. She talked about Matt and I talked about Joe. We discussed the shame and stigma that deters people from getting help, the mental health issues like depression and anxiety that often go hand in hand with substance use, and the need to see those struggling with addiction as sons, daughters, mothers, fathers – to see them as people who have value and are loved and needed.

Heather has created a nonprofit in hopes of “flipping the script” on how people struggling with addiction are viewed. The Matt Adams Foundation for Opioid Recovery gives grants for holistic rehabilitation centers and transitional programs for those on their path to recovery. Heather wants to not only spread awareness, “but more importantly, compassion and solidarity to those in recovery.”

Heather is an inspiration to everyone who hears her story or meets her along the trail. She refuses to allow things to stay as they are. Instead, she is spreading a message of hope, and sharing Matt’s story so that the wall of stigma that keeps so many people separated from treatment can be taken apart brick by brick. This cause she hikes for has given her grief a place, given it a voice. Under any circumstances walking the Appalachian Trail takes enormous courage and determination, but Heather has had to face some extreme weather conditions in Virginia with unprecedented amounts of rainfall, and high temperatures with a heat index of well over 100. But her cause keeps her going, giving her the strength to continue taking each step.

My hope for change is not as broad as Heather’s—my sights are only set on the community of Culpeper. Last year, Culpeper had some of the highest overdose numbers in the state of Virginia. Narcan is helping, lives have been saved and our number of deaths reduced, but it’s not a long term solution.

Access to treatment must be improved if we want to make any kind of progress. There are many barriers to treatment: cost, job loss, time away from family, lack of recovery facilities, but one of the biggest is the stigma they face. I don’t have the power to change most of those barriers, but I can help break down the stigma. We all can help with that. Addiction in our community has to become a normal part of our dialogue because like it or not, it’s affecting the lives of countless Culpeper families, and no solutions will be found if we continue to look the other way.

It might be too late for Heather’s Matt, and too late for my Joe, but it’s not too late for someone struggling right here today. And those are exactly the people Heather Starbuck is trying to help.

Her website: allows visitors the opportunity to track her progress, read the trek blog, and most importantly, to get to know Matt. It takes no time at all to recognize what a great guy he was! Heather’s journey is our journey. Because don’t we all want to help our fellow man and make our community a better place?

Her cause is worth fighting for, LIFE is worth fighting for.

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