There’s an old saying that “it takes a village,” but sometimes a strong individual can get the ball rolling to make a big mark on the community.
Plans are in the works to install a new substance abuse and mental health services center in the former medical building in Hatteras village, and many of the parties involved credit the development of the fast-moving plans to a Hatteras local, Wendy Stowe Sisler.
Wendy lost her son, Cory Stowe Sisler, in December of 2017 after a long struggle with addiction. Corey was 31-years-young.
In the weeks and months since, Wendy has spearheaded a movement which is grounded in social media to raise awareness and funds for island locals struggling with addiction, and to get much-needed and expanded mental health and substance abuse services on Hatteras Island.
And it’s working.
Currently, PORT Health Services shares a small office in Frisco next to the Sheriff’s office where they provide some services for local individuals. But for the most part, folks have to travel up the beach to Nags Head and to PORT Health’s larger office to get in-depth care and treatment.
In the near future, however, PORT Health is planning to move to the northern end of the medical building in the center of Hatteras village, which will make services more comprehensive, and more accessible.
“A couple of things came together at the same time for this to happen,” says Michelle Hawbaker from PORT Health. “We have had services out of the [Dare County] Health Dept. in Frisco for some time, but there isn’t adequate space for all the services we wanted. We were looking for someplace so we could expand our services, and the Hatteras Medical Center became available.”
“People from the tri-villages can get to us in [Nags Head], but it’s much harder for people in the southern villages,” she says. “Also, this location has more space, so we can have group therapy, expand our psychiatry services, and try to incorporate some community recovery support services and activities.”
“Treatment is short term, and recovery requires a lifetime,” she adds. “Hopefully there will be activities that aren’t time limited, but will support people: AA, NA – they will be welcome to have meetings there, and there can be other programs too. Having that support in your own community – that could make a big difference.”
In addition to the center itself, PORT Health is receiving donations thanks to Wendy’s efforts, which will be put back into the community in whichever way is needed most.
Transportation is a big hurdle on the island that can be overcome with the funds, but so is general awareness and bringing the local addiction problem to light – two additional non-monetary issues that Wendy is helping as well.
“I think her assistance and support has been critical in a couple ways,” says Michelle. “She has raised funds to help us do things we couldn’t do otherwise, and to allow people to participate in treatments. And her willingness to put her tragedy out there for people has done amazing things to break the stigma, and bring the issue to the forefront.”
“Addiction affects everyone, and it’s not a negative reflection on the family and loved ones,” she adds. “I admire her for being able to stand up and share her experience. She wants to make things easier, and better, and I think she’s doing just that.”
Currently, the lease for PORT Health to use the site is being finalized, according to Dare County Manager Bobby Outten.
Because the medical building is a county property, a lease needs to be in place and approved by all parties, and once that occurs, there is a 30-day advertisement – or notice – where the public can comment on the project if they would like. After the 30 days are up, it will go before the Dare County Board of Commissioners (BOC) for final approval.
“It’s a three step process – complete the document, advertise it, and then get the Board of Commissioners’ approval,” says Outten. “It will most likely come up [for approval by the BOC] as early as the second meeting in March.”
“I anticipate no issues with this at all,” said Dare County Commissioner Vice Charman Wally Overman in an email. “…We are all looking forward to PORT moving into this facility in Hatteras to provide their much-needed services on Hatteras Island.”
It’s a feeling that’s shared among many.
“We’re excited about it,” says Lois Miller of Yellow House Ministry of Hatteras Island, which is a local organization that has been working with substance abuse with young people and families since 2005.
“If you have issues, it’s difficult to go get help when the Sheriff’s office is right next to you,” she says, referring to the current small space in Frisco. “This is more private. Wendy Stowe has played a huge role in making this happen, and this is a big positive step for Hatteras Island.”
Yellow House Ministry is one of the local organizations that will likely partner with the new mental health center in the future. “The part we probably will play is when someone comes to us with a problem, we will direct them there, which we have been doing all along,” says Lois. “Sometimes therapy works better than going to rehab.”
But the sheer number of options that will be available to other organizations and community members who want to contribute will be plentiful. Source Church in Manteo and HighLife252 – which provides a number of services like HIV testing – have both been floated as possible partners in the months and years to come.
“We’d really like to be able to utilize the space to support people and organizations who are strengthening the recovery process on a local level,” says Michelle of PORT Health. “A couple people said they would be glad to come down and bring services to the island, and I think together we can be pretty impactful with everybody doing their part.”
One thing that everyone attests is that the new center is needed.
“I think we are in desperate need of it – we have lost a lot of children down here,” says Wendy Stowe Sisler. “Currently, our children have to go to Nags Head, and often [multiple] times per week. They can’t work, they can’t have a life – they need help, but it takes a lot to get that help. It’s a catch 22.”
Wendy’s continual goal is to raise both awareness and funds, and she has raised thousands of dollars so far which will stay in the local community, and which will be used in whatever way is needed. “The money is going to go to the children and people of Hatteras Island,” she says. “It could be transportation, could be for appointments, or rehab, or medications – There’s a lot of reasons why we need donations.”
And though Wendy is fairly new to the cause, her efforts are being noticed.
“I’ve never done anything like this, but the support from the community has been overwhelming,” she says. “My mission is to keep going.”
Wendy is planning on attending the next Dare County Board of Commissioners meeting in March, and sharing her story and her efforts in the public comment period. “It would be wonderful if we could get attendance, and get people to show up for the meeting.”
But it’s doubtful that there will be any voices against the new mental health and substance abuse center. After all, it’s widely recognized that it’s something he island needs, and as word spreads, that conversation seems to be getting louder.
“It’s something that I feel has to be done, and it will be done. The harder we push, the sooner we will get it,” says Wendy. “It’s been a tough road, but sometimes it takes something difficult to make changes, and this is a good change for our community.”
“A year from now, I want to sit back and say that everyone in Hatteras Island is aware that we’re there, services are available, and there are means to get there. That’s the goal right now,” says Michelle. “I want everyone to know that there are people who are going to help you, and it’s a safe place to go.”
How you can help:
Web page donations can be accepted through www.porthealth.org. Click “About Donations” or mail a donation to: PHS PO Box 565, Nags Head 27959
*Please note: It is very important that you notate Corey Sisler on your donation for these funds to be earmarked to fund Hatteras Island Mental Health and Addiction Services.
PORT is a 501(c)3 and donations are tax deductible.
You can also share Wendy’s story and social media post online, and attend the next Board of Commissioners meeting in March to show your support.