Between Aug. 22 and 28, while Penn freshmen enjoyed a gala at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Penn-themed ice sculptures, an estimated 23 people died from a drug overdose in the city of Philadelphia. 

Philadelphia is an epicenter of the national opioid crisis; the city saw more than 900 overdose deaths in 2016. The epidemic is centered in Kensington, a neighborhood in Northeast Philly located just five miles from Penn’s campus.

We spent many hours in Kensington this summer writing a piece about the drug epidemic for the Penn Political Review. Former addicts told us their stories. We watched police officers save the life of a dying overdose victim with Narcan, a drug that reverses the effect of an overdose. We came to understand how poverty, racial tensions, access to healthy food and other issues relate to drug abuse, and we saw Kensington residents working hard to live well despite challenging circumstances. 

But most strikingly, we saw a serious disconnect between Kensington and Penn. We have been at Penn for two full years, and only this summer did we realize this crisis existed. We found almost all our peers similarly unaware: Practically no one at Penn knows where Kensington is, or that heroin is a problem in Philadelphia. And despite Penn’s “commitment to local engagement," the focus is mostly limited to West Philly. Only one community member in Kensington could identify anything that any Penn affiliate had recently done in the neighborhood, and the DP has not run a single article on the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia.

That the center of the national opioid crisis exists just miles away and we are doing almost nothing is shameful. Fortunately, there are easy ways for you as an individual can change this. Here are seven:

  1. Don’t get high … on any drug. “Part of the reason (heroin) has gotten so inexpensive is that the (Mexican cartels) have very well-established trafficking routes used to distribute marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin,” says Special Agent Patrick Trainor of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “If people decide to use drugs like cocaine and marijuana, they are supporting the same organizations that transport heroin.”
  2. Research. Educate yourself about the opioid crisis. Then hop on the Market-Frankford Line, get off at Somerset or Allegheny and see Kensington in person. You can also find a way to work Kensington into a paper or a research project this semester. “We need to take (Penn’s) smarts … and drive that into those neighborhoods,” says Joe Pyle, president of the Scattergood Foundation.
  3. Organize a trash clean-up. “It’s a wonderful thing when … there’s 45 volunteers walking down the street, cleaning up the street,” says Philadelphia Police Inspector Ray Convery, who oversees 700 officers in Kensington. You should work with a community partner on this, such as Impact Services Corporation or Prevention Point. Both can be contacted through their websites. 
  4. Volunteer at the Free Library’s McPherson Square Branch. “Homework help is always needed, especially from someone who is bilingual.” says librarian Judy Moore. It also has a STEM program that needs volunteers. Email MooreJ@freelibrary.org for more information.
  5. Get Narcan training. Narcan is available at any pharmacy in Pennsylvania under a standing order by the Pennsylvania Physician General. Though it may seem unusual for a college student to carry around a dose of this life-saving drug, dozens of people have overdosed around Penn, and ER doctors and community members implored us to get it. “It’s the new CPR,” says Moore.
  6. Talk about addiction with empathy. “There’s no question the stigma adds to … overdose deaths,” says Priya Mammen, an emergency physician at Jefferson Hospital, because stigma makes it harder for people to acknowledge they have a problem. If we talk about addiction with the same openness, sensitivity and compassion afforded to cancer, we can diminish that stigma.
  7. Consider alternative post-graduation plans. “Before people get too deep into creating families … it's not as important that you make a quarter of a million dollars a year,” says Casey O’Donnell, President of Impact Services Corporation. “You might be able to take a job that makes $50,000 or $30,000 doing social service work.” 

At Penn, we lead some of the most privileged and over-resourced lives in Philadelphia. Don’t let the dazzle of NSO or the stress of the impending semester blind you to the needs of the community around you. This is your chance to be part of solving an issue that is a matter of life or death for hundreds across this city — we urge you to take it.

JACK HOSTAGER is a College junior from Dubuque, Iowa, studying international relations. His email address is hostager@sas.upenn.edu.

SHARON CHRISTNER is a College junior from Lititz, Pa., studying cognitive science. Her email address is chsharon@sas.upenn.edu.

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