Summit County’s response to opioid crisis impresses Washington advocates with a personal stake |

Summit County’s response to opioid crisis impresses Washington advocates with a personal stake

Ret. Admiral James, left, and Mary Winnefeld speak to Summit County residents about their experience with the opioid crisis and their subsequent efforts to curb overdoses. Projected behind them is a photo of their late son, Jonathan Winnefeld, a recovering addict who passed away from a heroin overdose shortly after beginning college.
James Hoyt/The Park Record

The national opioid crisis has spared no community, a reality Park City experienced most acutely in 2016 when two boys died from overdosing on an illicit drug purchased online. The tragedy rocked the idyllic mountain town and spurred it and the surrounding community to action. Now agencies, nonprofits and individuals dedicated to addressing mental health and substance abuse dot Summit County’s landscape.

Retired Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld and his wife Mary Winnefeld, founders of the SAFE (Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic) Project, see potential in Summit County’s response to the crisis. On Tuesday, in front of a crowd of about 80 at the Park City Hospital, they gave a presentation focusing on the causes of youth opioid abuse and what communities can do to stem the tide of tragedy.

The Winnefelds can relate to Park City’s pain all too well. When James, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Obama, and Mary, dropped off their son Jonathan to begin school at the University of Denver, it was the last time they saw him. Jonathan, a recovering addict, was lost to a heroin overdose four days later. Their story, told first in a piece for The Atlantic, met a receptive audience in Park City.

“I still do crawl into a little ball and wonder how this could have happened to us,” Mary said at the talk. The title of the presentation, “No Family Is Safe From This Epidemic,” was backed up by the response they received from Summit County residents during a question-and-answer session: multiple locals spoke up about loved ones living with addiction.

The two parents met with a number of Summit County officials and advocates during their time in Park City, and called the community’s overdose-fighting efforts an “exemplar” to the rest of the country.

“We’ve been exposed to almost every aspect of what a community should do to fight this epidemic, and it seems like Summit (County) is well ahead of most communities in the country on how to come together on this thing,” said James Winnefeld while standing in a hallway of the Park City Hospital, where anti-overdose messaging lines the walls, floors and doors.

In this particular fight, the Winnefelds are good friends to have in the national conversation. As Washington mainstays, they’re in a unique position to advocate for solutions to the opioid crisis at the center of power in the U.S. James Winnefeld has spoken to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who has focused on aggressive anti-drug policy) on the issue.

Shauna Wiest, executive director of CONNECT Summit County, the mental health nonprofit that hosted the presentation as part of its Mental Health Awareness Month programming, said she was “over the moon” at the event’s reception and the Winnefelds’ assessment of Summit County’s response to the crisis.

“We are still learning, but there are a few things that we’ve learned that can save other people time, and we’re finally getting things right here in Summit County,” Wiest said.

The Winnefelds said lessons from Summit County’s efforts to address the crisis will be used at a national conference in Washington later this year. And while Park City might not resemble hard-hit communities in the Midwest, New England or even others in Utah, James Winnefeld said the ideas and practices introduced here can be adapted for other places around the country.

“All we can do is tell (attendees) is what has worked in other communities and give them a Chinese menu of ideas from which they can pick to see what they think best fits their community,” James Winnefeld said. “The only way you win this thing is if the whole community attacks it together. … I think this is a solvable problem.”

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