Fighting for the future
Jim Langford leads the campaign against meth in Georgia
The crowd of about 35 children at the Lay Park Recreation Center in Athens reacts strongly to the image projected on the screen at the front of the room: “Ewwww.”
“This is what we call meth mouth. Everybody say meth mouth,” says Syreeta Thibodeaux, community outreach specialist with the Georgia Meth Project (GMP).
“Meth mouth,” the kids reply.
On this July day, during one of GMP’s many outreach programs, the kids have heard about the history of meth, ingredients, street names, common forms and how meth affects dopamine production in the brain. But the image of several meth users’ mouths—featuring rotting teeth and sores—really gets their attention. Thibodeaux explains that meth use leads to a lack of saliva, decrease in blood flow to the gums, teeth grinding, bad hygiene and a poor diet, which culminate in meth mouth.
Then she moves on to meth mites, or crank bugs. Meth users hallucinate that they have bugs on or even under their skin and they pick at it, leaving scars, scabs and weeping sores. There’s a photo for that too—a young man covered in sores lies on a dirty mattress, digging at his arm.
This is pretty rough stuff for a young audience, but for the Georgia Meth Project it’s business as usual. Executive Director Jim Langford (ABJ ’74) is intimately familiar with some of the darkest statistics and most disturbing stories the state of Georgia has to offer. Like the GMP volunteer from Carroll County who told him she doesn’t know anyone that’s not on meth. And the fact that in Gordon County, Langford’s home county, 100 percent of child deprivation cases are meth related. And the story of the UGA senior, a few years back, who used meth to study for exams. Instead of starting law school the next fall, the young man ended up in jail. And then there’s the subgroup of women users in their 30s who abandon their children.
“They are over the cliff. They’ve just gone nuts and destroyed their lives and their children’s lives,” he says. “And you’ve got grandparents now caring for those children. I know several people like that.”
With stakes like these, Langford believes GMP can’t afford to downplay anything.
“We need as a society and these young people need to recognize there are some things you just don’t need to do, that you just need to stay away from,” he says. “The consequences are too severe.”
The Georgia Meth Project was born with a split-second decision by Lee Shaw, CEO of Shaw Asset Management and chairman of the Shaw Family Foundation. In June 2008 he was invited to a meeting by Georgia’s then-attorney general Thurbert Baker, who wanted to talk about the state’s methamphetamine problem.
At the meeting with Baker, Shaw (M ’79) learned that Georgia at that time had the third worst meth problem among teens in the nation, costing the state an estimated $1.3 billion annually. He listened as law enforcement and other officials described the impact it was having on jails, courtrooms, hospitals and other agencies. He learned that more than 70 percent of foster kids in many Georgia counties had been placed in foster care because of a meth-related issue.
Baker’s next words really got his attention: “If we don’t do something about this problem, meth will destroy the state.”
The prediction hit home. Shaw grew up in Cartersville and lived in Dalton for 20 years, where he had served as an executive with Shaw Industries. Though he’d moved to Atlanta, he still had strong ties to northwest Georgia—where the meth problem was particularly bad—and felt a strong sense of responsibility. He sat there, stunned, convinced that someone needed to take action but not sure how he could help.
That’s when Tom Siebel got up to speak. An executive at Oracle and founder of Siebel Systems, he was well known in the business and technology worlds and had turned his attention to philanthropy. The Siebel Foundation had five initiatives, one of which was the Meth Project. In a nutshell, Siebel was good at selling things and thought that he could un-sell meth. He’d put together a team including psychiatrists, marketing professionals and Hollywood producers that had launched a campaign in Montana to reduce first-time meth use. In the first few years they’d reduced the rate by 65 to 70 percent, and subsequently they’d introduced the program in other states.
At the end of his presentation, Siebel said he’d be glad to help in Georgia but noted that it was his third trip to the state. “If you want help let’s decide to do it now,” Shaw remembers him saying. “Otherwise I’ve got other things to do.”
As Shaw watched Siebel pack up and walk out, he had one thought—Georgia’s best chance to beat meth was leaving.
“As he was walking out all I could envision was this window of opportunity that was getting ready to close, and the question that I had was ‘What am I going to do about it?’” he says. “And that’s when I got up and followed Tom down the hall, tapped him on the shoulder, introduced myself to him and said ‘We’ll bring this program to Georgia.’”
In fall 2008 Jim Langford got a phone call from his friend Lee Shaw, who wanted to talk about his new project. Langford already had too much on his plate, but Shaw insisted on meeting. “Give me 30 minutes,” he said, and Langford agreed, not realizing that his life was about to change.
After his meeting with Siebel and Baker, Shaw had spent some time thinking about who could lead the Georgia Meth Project. He needed someone with a high level of professionalism, a great set of skills and excellent interpersonal abilities. Only one name came to mind—Jim Langford.
After graduating from UGA Langford had worked on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign then segued into political work for Coca-Cola. Later he worked in marketing operations at Coke while based in locations like Puerto Rico and Argentina. He earned a master’s degree in business at Harvard and chose to return to Georgia, where he began helping to create and manage technology companies. One was an early electronic commerce firm that offered companies a way to conduct business through electronic data interchange. It captured 90 percent of the national electric utility market and went public in 1995.
When he wasn’t creating or running technology firms, Langford was pursuing his other passions—protecting historical sites, revitalizing public land and preserving greenspace. Since 1986 he’s run the Coosawattee Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to increase public awareness of archaeological resources and landscapes. To date, the group has educated about 25,000 children and adults about cultural origins and environmental resources in northwest Georgia. From 2004-07 Langford served as Georgia state director of the national nonprofit The Trust for Public Land, where he helped design and create the Atlanta BeltLine’s system of connected public parks. Now he’s founder and president of the board of directors for the MillionMile Greenway, another nonprofit that helps communities conserve and connect local greenspace.
In addition to his executive skills and passion for improving communities, Langford had one other qualification—firsthand knowledge of how meth can devastate a family. About eight years before Shaw’s phone call, the Langford family had taken in a foster daughter. The 2-year-old was the great-grandchild of the woman who’d cared for Langford when he was young. The girl’s parents were both in jail—the father for dealing and the mother for using meth. What started as a 90-day visit turned into five years and a mentoring relationship that still continues.
So when Lee Shaw was 20 minutes into his promised 30 at their meeting, Langford stopped him.
“Lee, I get it,” he said. “I understand.”
Although he’d just started two new nonprofits and had no intention of taking on another, Shaw’s description of the scope of Georgia’s problem troubled him. And Siebel’s involvement convinced him that the project was going to be worthwhile.
“Oh my gosh,” he said to himself. “I’m going to have to quit everything else I’m doing, and I’m going to have to work on this.”
“I picked up a tree limb, and I started hitting him with it. Busted his head open, and I think it broke one or two of his ribs, broke his nose. I didn’t think nothing about it, I just left him laying there. I turned into a horrible person, I guess.”
This is Devin, a former addict from Georgia, describing how he attacked his brother while they were smoking meth. He started using at the age of 10. His story is part of a series of radio ads created by the Georgia Meth Project.
It’s lunchtime on a day in early June, and Langford is meeting with the Midtown Atlanta Rotary Club. He’s just finished playing Devin’s ad, as well as some TV ads.
“I’m not going to play all of these,” he says, and someone in the crowd of more than 50 responds.
The reaction is understandable. Meth Project ads are known for their take-no-prisoners approach. Directors like Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Biutiful,” “Babel”) loaned their talents to create spots that are horrifying but informative, illuminating the common consequences of meth use—everything from paranoia, hallucinations and convulsions to betraying friends and family members to criminal behavior like stealing and prostitution.
Georgia Meth Project ads are known for their hard-hitting style, like this print ad depicting the condition known as meth mouth. Despite the serious consequences of meth use, a 2011 GMP survey found that 56 percent of Georgia teens said their parents had never talked to them about meth.
Langford is unapologetic for the campaign’s hard-hitting style because he knows the statistics. The campaign’s initial polling found that 35 percent of Georgia’s kids thought there was little or no risk in trying meth.
“This is a drug five times more powerful than cocaine, instantly addictive for some people,” he says. “And once they’re addicted, there’s only a 5 percent success rate for getting them off the drug.”
Because the success rate for treatment is so low, the Meth Project focuses on preventing meth use among 12- to 17-year-olds. The program’s slogan is “Not Even Once.”
“There’s no need to experiment with [meth],” Langford says. “It could be an experiment you cannot recover from.”
Some ask if he’s running a scare campaign, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“We’re running an education campaign. We don’t have to make up anything scary,” he says. “Let these kids tell the real stuff. It’s much more horrifying than anything we could make up.”
Langford knows how disturbing the reality of meth can be because he is constantly hearing stories. People pull him aside after presentations like today’s to tell him about a friend or relative on meth. Others submit stories to the GMP website or via email.
“You just hear every terrible story you can imagine, and it usually ends in death, jail, and this terrible downward spiral, and people end up dying,” he says. “As one of the girls said in one of the radio ads, there are no 80-year-old meth addicts out there. They all die fairly young.”
Conditions like these warrant drastic measures, Langford says.
“I hope that what we end up doing is creating this generation of kids who understand how dangerous this drug is.”
Langford (left) and Rick Sellers (AB ’76) work a Calhoun excavation site in June. Langford is passionate about archeaology and stays in touch with UGA faculty, sponsoring field schools for undergraduate students. And he has additional ties to UGA: daughters Kate Langford Johnson (BFA ’08, MAEd ’12) and Claudia Langford (AB ’11) also graduated from UGA. Daughter Ava Langford attends Brown University.
“Hi, my name is Ellen. I’m a volunteer for the Georgia Meth Project. I’m a volunteer because I watched my cousin die because of meth.”
This is how 17-year-old Ellen Rittiner begins her presentations about meth.
In 2006, Rittiner watched her 26-year-old cousin Kelly transform from a bubbly, outgoing, fun young woman into an addict who had violent outbursts and stole from her family.
“It was really sad, and she ended up dying alone on the side of the road,” she says.
Fueled by grief, Rittiner began learning more about meth, making it the subject of her school papers and projects.
“They never do anything at school about it, ever,” she says. “And so I just felt like I needed to tell people.”
She volunteered for GMP, manning tables and handing out T-shirts. Eventually she began giving presentations, including one at Creekview High School in Canton—where she graduated in June—and one at the Capitol last summer alongside Gov. Nathan Deal. This summer, while preparing to attend UGA in the fall, Rittiner continued to work with GMP’s staff on presentations to camps and other youth programs. GMP Program Manager Latrina Patrick says Rittiner is a valuable member of the team.
“She’s practically irreplaceable,” she says. “She has such a passion because of her experience.”
Rittiner’s age also helps, according to Langford. This year he started a Rittiner-led YouTube program about meth that’s since expanded into Girls Leading Against Meth, aka the GLAM Squad, which empowers young girls to lead the fight against meth since studies have shown that girls are more likely to try it. Langford misses communicating directly with kids, but he feels that his role should be behind the scenes.
“I love going into classrooms, but they don’t want to hear from an old guy like me,” he says, laughing.
GMP regularly visits Georgia schools and by the end of 2012 will have reached 35,000 young people in middle and high school classrooms. If you’re not in one of those classrooms, though, you might think the program is no longer around. During their initial 2010 advertising campaign, GMP ran 19,658 ads during primetime TV, 21,382 radio ads and 288 billboards. These days, however, they’re not nearly as visible to the general public. The program’s target demographic lives online and communicates primarily through social media, so GMP shifted their focus online as well.
In fall 2011 GMP launched their “Ask” website, which gives kids the opportunity to educate themselves by learning the answers to questions like “What does meth do to your brain?” and “Does meth have long-term effects?” plus offering more stories from former meth users.
The key, says Langford, is eschewing the usual educational formats and allowing kids to choose the information they want. With 16,000,000 video hits in Georgia alone, the online advertising, social media and website strategy seems to be working.
“The kids aren’t going to listen to that policeman. They’re not going to listen to a principal in high school,” he says. “But they will listen to somebody who’s a former addict, and they’ll listen to younger people tell their personal stories. That’s why that thing’s loaded up with personal stories. Let them talk to each other.”
“You watch who you roll with, ok?”
Back at the Lay Park Recreation Center, Lt. Terrie Patterson of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department has just explained to the kids that if they’re in a room where meth is found on a coffee table, they can face criminal charges. The same is true if they’re riding in a car with someone who has meth.
Lt. Terrie Patterson of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department “deputizes” kids attending a Georgia Meth Project outreach program in Athens in July. After receiving “badges” that were actually stickers, the kids pledged not to use meth and other drugs.
“You can be charged from two years to life. Two years to life in prison,” she says. “Don’t let it cost you your life.”
Next, recovering meth addict Sandy Howington puts a face on the facts they’ve heard today. She doesn’t look anything like the addicts they’ve seen in GMP ads, but appearances can be deceiving, she says.
Howington was hooked instantly after a friend gave her meth. She began smoking it and within a year was injecting it. At the age of 25 she’d lost almost all of her teeth—only six remain.
“What you see today are dentures and about $10,000 worth of dental work that my mom had to pay for,” she says.
She lost all of her eyelashes, and her eyebrows fell off. In the summer of 2005 she was six feet tall and weighed only 98 pounds. Her kidneys failed, and she was told that she might be on dialysis for the rest of her life. She lost her job, her home and her family.
Now sober for seven years, Howington tells the children that sobriety is not an easy path.
“Once you have an addiction, every single day of your life becomes a struggle just to survive. I suffer today from anxiety and paranoia. I still have problems from the drugs that I used. But I know I’m very lucky. Very few people ever recover from this drug,” she says.
“I hope you think of me every time someone tempts you—and you will be tempted. I hope you think of me and my story and the Not Even Once message if you’re ever tempted with drugs.”
While Howington drives the message home Langford sits off to the side, content to let her take the spotlight. Perhaps he’s thinking about GMP’s future—developing a curriculum that can be implemented in schools so they can reach every child in Georgia.
“We’re really good in a classroom of 20 kids, but how do we get to 800,000? That’s what the next step is,” he says.
“If we’re doing our job well, we put ourselves out of business but find a way to sustain the message.”
It might be a long way off, but they’re well on the way. In 2010 Barron’s ranked Tom Siebel and the Meth Project number three on its list of top 25 philanthropies that address urgent causes.
When Georgia no longer needs the Meth Project, Langford will spend more time on the projects he put aside. But until then, he’ll work to keep future generations of Georgians off meth. That means he’ll continue to hear sad and shocking stories on a daily basis, but he’s decided he can live with it.
“I didn’t come back to Georgia to just play golf or go rest at the beach somewhere,” he says. “I came back to Georgia because it’s a place I love and a place where I want to see great things happen. If we’ve got an epidemic in Georgia, then I need to do something to help fix that if I can.”