Unifying for transformation: Manchester celebrates 20th anniversary of ‘March Against Drugs’

May 09, 2024

MANCHESTER – Much like the day 20 years ago when Clay County residents rallied to say they were tired of the problems caused by substance abuse, residents gathered at Eastern Kentucky University’s Manchester campus for a 1.6-mile walk to Rawlings & Stinson Park.

That original May 2, 2004, “March Against Drugs” was a pivotal event that united 3,500 people from approximately 60 churches across Clay County in a resolute stand against the drug epidemic ravaging their community.

Although problems still exist, Sunday’s unity march was much more of a celebration.

“Clay County hasn’t just stood still, you have moved forward,” said Carlos Cameron, District Director for Fifth District Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers. “There are lives worth saving … and you all can do it.”

Many of the original organizers and participants returned for this year’s march and rally. A number of the speakers, who are now in recovery from substance misuse, credited the chain of events set in motion 20 years ago with saving their lives.

“I was part of the problem,” stated Sue Fox, Outreach Peer Support Specialist with Volunteers of America Midstates. “Today I get to stand up here and tell about it.”

“Clay County had a Red Sea moment,” said Forest Quillen, now Director of Chad’s Hope Teen Challenge. “Twenty years ago, a bunch of broken people came together and God had mercy on us. I believe this is the City of Hope.”

Stephanie Hoskins, Senior Director of Rural Addiction Services for Volunteers of America Midstates, stood on stage cradling 3-day-old Aspen, the 24th drug-free baby born to a resident of Freedom House’s Manchester recovery center. “This is why (today is so important),” she stated.

“The power of involving faith-based communities and the need to provide community education was on full display in Manchester 20 years ago, when 3,500 people stepped up to say they had had ‘enough’ of the drug-related problems devastating families across southern and eastern Kentucky,” said Tom Vicini, President & CEO of Operation UNITE.

“Clay County – although not alone in recognizing and reacting to the problems of substance misuse and abuse – led the charge for the Fifth Congressional District just as UNITE Community Coalitions were starting to take shape,” Vicini continued. “From despair to a City of Hope, Manchester continues to stand strong – united in purpose – and saving one life at a time.”

Acknowledging the enduring necessity for spiritual revival, the community remains resolute in its pursuit of God’s presence and guidance.

“This event is not a vitriolic event,” said Manchester Baptist Church Pastor Ken Bolin, who helped organize the original march. “We’re not here to beat our chest and say we’re the greatest. What this is about is celebrating people who are recovering and have recovered and will recover as a result of the efforts coming together through the march, through Operation UNITE, through all these organizations that are starting up to bring people from addiction to sobriety and peace with God himself.”

Today, Manchester is “a shining city on a hill,” Bolin stated. “A lot of people are letting their lights shine.”

The narrative of Manchester’s metamorphosis from a town besieged by drug-related fatalities and rampant criminality to a bastion of hope and rejuvenation has resonated far beyond its borders.

In the weeks preceding the inaugural March, the Reverend Wendell Carmack aptly remarked, “This is a job so big that only God can take care of it. … But it’s work He will gladly perform once the people of our county come together in one heart, one spirit, and one purpose.”

Indeed, in 2004, amidst desperation, the citizens of Clay County set aside denominational differences to embark on a unified march through Manchester, boldly confronting drug dealers with a message of redemption and salvation.

Senior Pastor Doug Abner of Manchester Community Church reflected on the indelible impact of the original march, declaring, “This is a new day for Clay County. It’s time we quit being the butt of everything and go to the top. I’ve never been as proud of this county as I am today.”

The March Against Drugs ignited a spiritual awakening that precipitated tangible change. Drug-related arrests surged, and individuals ensnared in addiction found solace in the sanctuary of the church, seeking redemption and deliverance.

Manchester’s narrative of resilience and renewal transcended geographical boundaries, inspiring similar movements in communities across the United States.