Students at Union Academy got a reality check last Thursday. As part of a new program of Macon County Schools, the students listened to a presentation about the scourge of drugs and alcohol known as “Reality Check 101.”
Speakers from the community whose lives were negatively impacted by substance abuse told their stories to onlooking students.
Derek Roland, who lost his brother in October in an accident involving alcohol, and Kyle Morgan, who was paralyzed in a similar incident last March, recalled the tragic events that changed their lives. Both Roland and Morgan said that it was their goal to reach at least one student with their message of avoiding drug and alcohol abuse.
The students were cautioned by both Roland and Morgan, respectively, to focus on their dreams and their future and to steer clear of substance abuse.
Roland began by recalling the night he learned his brother, 19-year-old Parker Mathis, was killed in a car accident. If it wasn’t for alcohol and drug use, Roland said, his brother might be alive today.
Roland told the students that he didn’t want his brother’s death to be meaningless. He recalled the tragedy and noted that telling the story is something Mathis would have wanted. “I can’t stand up here and describe how bad it hurts,” he said.
Leveling with the students, Roland explained that when he went to college he would go to parties. “I did my share of partying, stopped, got out, got a job, finished school and nothing ever happened to me,” he said, admitting that the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse are rarely considered by young people. Roland acknowledged that such substances are easily available. “So often you get caught up in the moment and you fail to think about the consequences that it can have on your life,” he said.
Roland told students of the day when his mother informed him that his brother was in Asheville in critical condition. He related the difficult drive to Mission Memorial Hospital to see his brother for the last time.
Upon arrival, Roland found his brother sedated on a gurney, because earlier he had been trying to pull out a tube that was inserted into his chest. He recalled later on, looking at his brother and seeing all the blood. “It was the most humbling, comingto- reality of things that I had ever seen in my life,” he said. “It was the most horrific thing I had ever seen.”
“I got his hand in mine and I told him that I loved him and that everything was going to be all right,” Roland said. He remembered his mother kissing Parker on the forehead, who in response just opened his eyes a little bit. “That was the last time that I had ever touched my brother while he was alive, or that I would ever see his eyes, or anything.”
Students at that point became visibly uneasy. “I’ll pray for your brother,” said one student, while some other students wept.
Kyle Morgan then took the floor in his wheelchair. “I don’t remember anything from the accident because all of the anesthesia I was on,” he began.
A former local mixed martial arts fighter and National Guardsman, Morgan was ejected from the windshield of a vehicle after fleeing law enforcement last year. As a result, he was paralyzed from the neck down. Morgan said he had been drinking, which he recounted in brief detail for the students. “When I woke up after five days of being [in the hospital] I thought I was tied down,” he said, citing the moment when he first realized he was paralyzed.
“I would feel so much happier if I could change just one of your lives here today,” he said. Morgan said that he began drinking when he was 14 years old, and that he was kicked out of school later due to misbehavior.
After school, Morgan said that he had accomplished a lot, and paid no mind to the consequences of substance abuse. “I was so athletic, I figured this would never happen to me. I had everything going for me.” Though he drank during that time on the weekends, Morgan said that he never thought of himself as an alcoholic.
“Just because I lost a part of my body, doesn’t mean I am dead. It doesn’t mean I’m not alive, and it doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to get people to turn the other way. Say no to drinking. Say no to drugs,” Morgan urged the students. “Just because alcohol is legal, doesn’t mean it is right.”
Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland, who coordinated the event, then asked Morgan to describe what a day in his life was like. As he proceeded, Morgan choked up and emotion set in. “When my day starts, I wake up with my eyes and that’s it,” he said, adding that he needs the help of his home assistant to get out of bed, get dressed and most other basic daily functions.
Morgan said that he would have pulled over on the day of his wreck, if he had considered the consequences of his actions. “I would have just taken the five years in jail, because that’s what I was looking at. I would have taken five years if I could use my legs,” he said.
When Morgan finished, he shared his dreams with the students. “I will walk again. When I do, I am going to run,” he said.
School Superintendent Dan Brigman, who also attended the presentation, said that he believes the Reality Check program will have a “tremendous impact” on Macon County youth. “It will give them prime examples for rewards and consequences for their decisions during the years to come,” he said. “I am very appreciative of Sheriff Holland for allowing this opportunity for our students to engage in conversations with members of the community regarding decisions. I also want to extend sincere appreciation to Derek Roland and Kyle Morgan for their support with this program.”
The “Reality Check 101” presentation was also given on Monday at Macon Middle School. According to Student Support coordinator Marci Holland, some students have reportedly told their teachers that the program had an impact on their goals in life. “Kyle Morgan and Derek Roland both have a really powerful message to get through to our kids, and we are honored that they took the time to speak to them,” she said.
The program was first initiated by Sheriff Holland in 2005, and was exclusive to inmates talking about their struggles with substance abuse to students from grades 5- 12. The program expanded to include nonincarcerated victims of substance abuse, when both Roland and Morgan approached Sheriff Holland with their interest in getting involved. Further presentations are scheduled to take place at the rest of the schools around the county in the near future, he added.
“When somebody makes a mistake, we kind of shun them, don’t we?” Holland said. “Instead, what we need to do is grasp on to those people and show them the right way to do things and try to be a leader within our community.”