Forsyth County junior campaigns against drugs

Vinayak Menon, a junior at Forsyth County’s Lambert High School, looked around and didn’t like what he saw.

“Many of my peers were burdened by stress and anxiety,” he said. “Many of them were becoming addicted, and some were losing their lives.”

A freshman at the time, Menon responded by joining the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council in Cumming – a move that would eventually lead him on a campaign to keep thousands of prescription drugs from potentially being abused.

“I wanted to be part of the solution to this crisis that was affecting my peers and my community,” he said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Last March, Menon organized a countywide town hall meeting and brought in experts in the field of drug prevention. The meeting was held virtually because of COVID-19 but still drew 200 to 300 participants.

He also produced a resource guide to help people with addictions and their families connect with treatment services and hotline numbers. And, again due to delivery problems created by the pandemic, he had to be creative – arranging to have hundreds of the resource guides handed out at local food banks.

But his biggest effort to date is ongoing and involves reducing access to prescription drugs at home through the distribution of drug deactivation and disposal pouches. He estimates that with the drug disposal kits he’s given out, as many as 350,000 unused pills could be out of circulation.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

The drug disposal kits – which include activated carbon to neutralize the chemicals in the medications – typically cost under $10 each. But these were donated by their manufacturer, Verde Environmental Technologies, and provided to Menon by the SAFE (Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic) Project.

The nonprofit SAFE Project was started in November 2017 by Navy Admiral James Winnefeld and his wife Mary after their 19-year-old son Jonathan died of an accidental opioid overdose.

Winnefeld said Menon had the right approach.

“We know that opioid dependence often starts in the home, so when Vinayak reached out to us to assist with our at-home drug disposal work, we quickly agreed to have him assist by working within his community,” Winnefeld said.

He said Menon “has shown real dedication to reducing the breadth of our nation’s opioid crisis.

“I look forward to what he’ll continue to achieve as a drug prevention advocate and as a leader in this fight.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) recently presented Menon with its Outstanding Youth Leader Award for his work with the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council.

It was his second national award. Last fall, he was named the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Youth Advocate of the Year for his efforts to prevent youngsters from smoking.

Menon speaks up and speaks out when he feels passionate about something. For instance, last summer, he wrote a newspaper piece encouraging other young people to learn at least the fundamentals of how their government operates.

“I’m really excited about influencing policy because I think policies, laws and regulations are really strong ways that we can get these addictive substances out of the hands of youth,” he said.

As part of his anti-tobacco campaign, Menon went to Washington, D.C., to speak to lawmakers about banning flavored tobacco products.

He’s no stranger to public speaking.

He’s been involved in speech and debate since middle school and is a member of Lambert’s debate team. He’s also the only Georgian on the USA National Speech and Debate Team, representing America in international competition with China, Canada, Pakistan and other nations around the globe.

Brooke Wallace, Lambert High’s speech and debate coach, said Menon’s selection to the national debate team was “a tremendous honor and huge accomplishment.

“Everyone at Lambert is very proud of him,” she said. “I feel this shows a lot about Vinayak in general: his commitment to debate, his perseverance and hard work, and his willingness to go above and beyond and really put in the effort to succeed.”

Menon has publicly joked that he’s not currently running for office. But don’t count him out.

“In all seriousness, I do hope to be involved in public policy or community service in the future,” he said. “I have found true joy in serving my community and giving back to those who most need assistance. If I could have the opportunity to continue this work in a career, I would certainly do so.”

Credit: special to the AJC

Credit: special to the AJC