The image of a substance abuser does not always stir sympathy.
Some see people addicted to drugs or alcohol as simply lacking discipline. People who must live with their decisions.
Operation PAR executive director Nancy Hamilton wonders what those folks would think if they knew some of those adults first experimented with drugs back in elementary school.
"I keep trying to tell people that the average age of onset of drug use now is 9, 10 and 11," said Hamilton, who has been with the substance abuse treatment agency for more than 30 years.
"Way back when, people started using drugs later in their life. They didn't even start until their late teens or early 20s, so they didn't get in trouble until their mid 20s or 30s. Every generation after that keeps drifting backwards," she said.
Hamilton made the age distinction when we met recently for coffee. We talked about the agency's funding, which seems to be under constant threat in these difficult economic times. As the state continues to seek solutions to its budget deficit, drug treatment often falls under consideration because it's not a warm and fuzzy cause.
"It's just human nature," Hamilton said. "It's very hard for them to feel sorry for people because they still believe addiction is a choice. I don't think it's a choice when you're 9, 10 or 11."
Hamilton also cited the growing trend of prescription parties among teenagers, who are raiding their parents medicine cabinets and sampling the "drug mix."
"They have the illusion of being safe," Hamilton said of the prescription pills. "After all, they were prescribed by a doctor and bought at a drug store. I usually tell parents if you lock up your guns, you should darn well lock up your prescriptions."
Parents are the best barrier to keep kids from getting involved in drugs and alcohol, Hamilton said. "The parents are the wall."
Treatment also helps another set of kids, those with parents who are substance abusers. As Hamilton noted, it's hard to do well in school when you were up all night because mom and dad were drunk and fighting — again.
Of course, not every PAR effort affects a child's life, but there is no shortage of social ills that can be improved through treatment. Crime, education, homelessness and child abuse are just a few.
Operation PAR's funding comes largely from grants, but one sizable grant doesn't solve all its problems. Last fall, PAR received a three-year, $1.17 million federal grant to treat women on probation in Pinellas County. If a program to treat ex-felons who are men gets cut, it can't transfer that particular grant money.
"That would be fraud," Hamilton said succinctly.
Despite the challenges that may come from ongoing state and federal budget cuts, Hamilton remains determined to remind legislators and members of Congress about its mission. And she wants help. Go to www.operationpar.org for information on contacting elected officials.
"I think this election should show people what communities can do when they want something to change," Hamilton said. "I think people will realize we are our brothers' keeper. If we don't take care of our communities and the people who live in them, we don't have anything.
"I can't imagine that."
Neither can I.
That's all I'm saying.