ST. JOHNSBURY -- A shadowy cancerous evil is consuming St. Johnsbury and threatens to destroy the town's reputation, according to a resident and retired engineer this week who publicly aired a personal story about drug abuse.
"This beautiful little town in the Northeast Kingdom, St. Johnsbury, has a disease that will surely strangle the many good people of this town as time goes on," Tom Chandler, a former Connecticut resident who lives on North Avenue, said this week at a regular meeting of the St. Johnsbury Board of Selectmen. "Within a very short walk from my home, one can obtain crack cocaine, heroin and illegal prescription drugs. During my walks with my dog through town daily, and often in the evening, I see drug deals going down. I am well aware what a score is. I have seen it too many times in Connecticut."
Chandler in St. Johnsbury lives a block from the American Legion on Eastern Avenue, which is a local thoroughfare. Chandler, accompanied by a women "plagued with a drug addiction," moved from Connecticut to Vermont four years ago, settling in St. Johnsbury two years ago.
They were attempting to escape drug-stoked urban realities in Connecticut.
"We were in love and intent on creating a new clean life away from the environment in Connecticut that nearly destroyed her," Chandler said while reading from a letter he penned and presented to selectmen. "We came to St. Johnsbury to live in this wonderful little town. But as time went on and I explored the treasures of St. Johnsbury, she found other attractions that were drawn from her past. This past year, she found heroin and crack cocaine in St. Johnsbury -- her old nemesis. Of course I resisted and became an anchor trying to ground her. Last week the rope on that anchor broke and she left to be with another to share this 'cancer' that St. Jay rekindled. This fragile life that she is holding onto is now speeding to a disastrous crash and I am helpless now to aid this woman I love. I will survive all this and perhaps come out in a better place but I fear she certainly will not."
Chandler plans to leave St. Johnsbury. He thinks the community's reputation for hard drugs will likely balloon and someday paint the town undesirable to additional residents and would-be newcomers.
Particularly, he fears for St. Johnsbury Academy. The town's reputation could impact the school's enrollment, he said.
"The St. Johnsbury Academy here is a shining star attracting students worldwide," Chandler said. "The parents of these students would be more than very concerned about the evil side of St. Jay if they knew. At some time they will, and the attraction of St. Johnsbury Academy may be diminished irreparably. It took less than two years for the 'cancer' in St. Jay to tear my life apart and destroy another's."
Chandler calls for action and wants to assist. The problem is, he doesn't know where or how to begin.
Other residents feel similarly helpless, he said.
"I am sure that many townspeople are aware and greatly concerned about the drug problems in their town," Chandler said. "I am equally sure they, like me, do not know what to do or how to do it. We need to look differently at this issue. This issue needs a major change in the approach to the cure because what we are doing now is not working."
Sue Cherry, director of the Community Restorative Justice Center in St. Johnsbury, suggests Chandler attend the upcoming meeting of DART 2.0, an organization of citizens and relevant local experts attempting to curb drug woes in St. Johnsbury. The meeting is December 9 at 6 p.m. at North Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury.
Cherry facilitates the meetings.
Nancy Bassett, a coordinator at Kingdom Recovery Center on Summer Street, is a regular attendee.
"DART is a drug abuse resistance team," Bassett said. "We would encourage anybody from the community to come and learn what we're doing and what there is available. And certainly they are welcome to state how they feel and we will listen to that."
Tom Lovett, headmaster at St. Johnsbury Academy, appreciates the comments from Chandler, the concerned citizen. Lovett said St. Johnsbury's reputation could impact Academy enrollment but the current threat is relatively minor.
"In many ways the reputation of St. Johnsbury is on the rise and families who relocate here to send their students to the Academy love living in this town," Lovett said. "Certainly if St. Johnsbury were to become known only or mainly as a drug haven -- either regionally, nationally or worldwide -- it could affect our enrollment. Our job is to help make sure that doesn't happen and we have great partners in that fight: law enforcement, treatment agencies and concerned citizens like Mr. [Tom] Chandler, to name a few...We are dedicated to helping alleviate and eradicate poverty and substance abuse."
Lovett said the Academy actively markets St. Johnsbury. The task entails sustaining existing organizations and resources while developing new opportunities here, he said.
"The more we promote and strengthen the considerable assets of our community, the more we are able to promise our [student] boarders that this town is a healthy and safe place to grow and develop -- their hometown away from home," Lovett said. "We continue to work to preserve that reality."
The Academy, for example, supports events like First Night St. Johnsbury, he said. The school this month also opened the RecFit fitness center in the former Club at Old Mill in St. Johnsbury, he said.
Selectman Kevin Oddy, board chairman, sympathizes with Chandler, the concerned citizen, and others rocked by drug abuse. There are many examples, and not only in St. Johnsbury, Oddy said.
Furthermore, Oddy said addressing drug issues necessitates a community approach.
"I believe that there are a lot of people who are going through some very difficult times due to drug abuse and my heart goes out to all of them," Oddy said. "I would like to complement our police department for the active role they take in investigating and prosecuting drug offenders. However, with that said, it takes the whole community to stand up to a problem like this. If you see suspicious activity please call and report it. It is time we all got involved and said, 'No, not in our town.'"
Oddy questions whether drug problems are worse locally than elsewhere in the state but said any drug problem is serious. He is not worried about St. Johnsbury Academy enrollment.
"I think the Academy stands on its reputation and I believe they do all they can to stem the flow of drugs as well as educating the students on the dangers of drug use," Oddy said.
St. Johnsbury Police Chief Clem Houde was not immediately available for comment. Houde though has contacted Chandler, the concerned citizen, and the pair are scheduled to meet next week to discuss drug problems.