MatForce celebrates 17th anniversary of substance abuse prevention advocacy, education

MatForce Founder and Board Chairman Sheila Polk and 16-year Executive Director Merilee Fowler at the Yavapai County nonprofit substance abuse prevention coalition’s 17th anniversary celebration at the Hassayampa Inn on Valentine’s Day. (Nanci Hutson/Courier)

MatForce Founder and Board Chairman Sheila Polk and 16-year Executive Director Merilee Fowler at the Yavapai County nonprofit substance abuse prevention coalition’s 17th anniversary celebration at the Hassayampa Inn on Valentine’s Day. (Nanci Hutson/Courier)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. - In its 17-year legacy of substance abuse prevention with focuses on youth education, trauma impact, positive parenting, mental health, mentoring and overdose fatality reviews — to name a few — MatForce and its Yavapai County coalition leaders and volunteers have emerged as “prevention champions.”

The mission and vision from Day One remains true to this day: sparing lives by reinforcing life-affirming messages that steer a community’s children, parents, grandparents, even former addicts, away from the temptations of vaping, binge alcohol consumption, reliance on prescription narcotic painkillers or any pill that could be contaminated with miniscule, yet deadly, doses of illegal fentanyl, leaders said.

At a 125-guest celebration breakfast at the Hassayampa Inn on Valentine’s Day, MatForce founders and leaders applauded all those in Yavapai County who across the years have embraced bold efforts to combat addiction and its impacts on the lives of families in this community. Starting with an attack on methamphetamines in 2006, MatForce has become a true “force” for drug-abuse prevention by targeting not just the substances but the roots of why people succumb to drugs. As a community-spirited coalition, MatForce brings the power of law enforcement officers, educators, mental health experts, public health officials, teen peer mentors, former inmates, clergy, elected officials and grieving parents to attack the latest substance-abuse trends.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” declared MatForce Founder and Board Chairman Sheila Polk.

At its start, the almost all-volunteer agency’s annual budget was about $125,000. Today, MatForce manages multi-million dollar grants, as it has expanded into shepherding a statewide coalition, Substance Abuse Coalition Leaders of Arizona.

Part of the “secret sauce” behind MatForce’s successful formula, though, is a human force, the agency’s much revered, 16-year Executive Director Merilee Fowler, a soft-spoken, yet fierce advocate for all things prevention, in her home community, her home state and across the nation.

Polk and fellow coalition leaders hailed Fowler for her unrelenting efforts to fight against apathy when it comes to standing up against those for whom prevention is a dirty word. She’s reprimanded the pharmaceutical industry for not doing more to halt narcotic painkiller shopping by their own patients; she’s challenged the marijuana industry even after losing the fight against recreational use for adults; she worked with multi-agencies to examine overdose fatalities so as to build programs intended to save future victims; she promotes contests that encourage youth to create their own prevention advertisements — be it a poster or a pizza box. Fowler was at the forefront of the fentanyl battle; sounding the alarm even before families in this county, and others, were forced to bury teenagers who ingested a pill laced with the deadly substance.

Throughout the 90-minute program, coalition leaders shared how MatForce has grown to not only fight back against the latest drug influences but to empower vulnerable individuals and families with the education and resources they need to move beyond their addictions or mental health challenges.

One highlighted program is the Yavapai Reentry Project, a program that pairs volunteer community coaches with individuals released from jail or prison. Through these mentors, these men and women are able to get help with addictions, physical and mental health needs, employment, housing, as well forge friendships that enable them to believe in a new future.

The breakfast crowd was also treated to an anniversary video that showcased many of MatForce’s ongoing programs and initiatives. Fowler, too, shared some of its billboards, radio and television advertisements focused around various prevention efforts, including spots from families who have lost teens to illegal fentanyl overdoses. All of the attendees were delivered a pamphlet highlighting MatForce’ programs over its 17-year history — and they were able to take home a MatForce coffee mug.

MatForce Youth Group Chairman Luis Oliver shared how he and his fellow teens are working to “better our generation and beyond.”

Through civic engagement, teen-focused events and prevention education promotions, Oliver said the council is all about encouraging teens to embrace a drug-free future. Advisor Ivy Chamberlain and Fowler both suggested these youth leaders are the hope for the future.

To the adults in the audience, Oliver offered his group’s mantra:

“Love Yourselves, Never Drug Yourselves.”

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