This has GOT TO BE a year that will stay in the history books and archives forever!

Our NOPE of Hillsborough Chapter has experienced what the rest of the world has experienced due to the COVID 19 health crisis and this is a halt to all large group activities, an absence of all in-person fundraising, and a feeling of isolation from our community and partners. As much as social media tries to keep us connected, as much as ZOOM and Teams meetings try to maintain a sense of cohesiveness in organizations, and as much as phone conversations allow for us to humanly hear one another there is no replacement for face-to-face encounters with body language, good old fashioned hugs, and human interaction.

This summer found our chapter volunteers and Board Members practicing social distancing and wearing masks as we drove from house to house of our ten NOPE of Hillsborough scholarship awardees. We had received a record number of applications for our NOPE scholarships, 68 to be exact! Thanks to the Tampa Bay Lightning and their Lightning Foundation our Chapter President, Cathy Valdes, was a recipient of their Community Hero Award where $50,000 was presented in a check to Cathy where she, in turn, donated those funds to several of her favorite charities. One was NOPE of Hillsborough, another WEDU, the YMCA, and HCADA. All of us collaborated in 2020 to make great things happen with those funds.

Hillsborough County Anti Drug Alliance worked with us in choosing the ten graduating seniors that would be awarded $1,000 each in the form of a check written directly to the student for their thorough application and an essay written about how the NOPE student presentation made an impact on them and how they will carry our stories and messages forward in their journey here on earth. The essays were compelling to read and oftentimes brought tears to the committee member’s eyes. As the time came to award the scholarships to these ten deserving students we had representatives from NOPE of Hillsborough, HCADA, and Cathy Valdes annually awards a scholarship directly from the Michael Valdes Foundation.

Seeing the surprise on these Hillsborough County School District students’ faces as we drove up in a caravan honking our horns, sporting signs of Congratulations, and awarding the student with a check and a beautiful bouquet of flowers for the family was touching and a day hopefully they will carry with them for years to come. Many proud parents stood by these students’ sides, siblings came out to be in on the fun, grandparents who were staying with the family during COVID peeked their heads outside the fronts doors, and even neighbors stepped outside their homes and joined in on the applause! It was fabulous! (You should check out our Facebook page and go back to May 2020 and watch every one of the ten award ceremonies conducted outside and mostly at the student’s home.)

Later in the year, we all were thrilled here in the City of Tampa (and well into the entire Bay Area) that our Hockey Team The Tampa Bay Lightning made it to the playoffs. It was a great diversion during COVID stay-at-home orders to have sports back on TV and to have the BOLTS make it all the way to the finals. As most of the world knows our team brought The Stanley Cup back to Tampa, and it was quite the celebration. I believe many sane-minded, intelligent people let loose that afternoon during the boat parade that celebrated our great hockey team and players. Masks seemed to fall into the Hillsborough River as chants rang out over the city and cheering was heard across the land. Just a couple of weeks ago our small nucleus of NOPE Board Members, NOPE Community Hero Award recipients, and their nominators were invited to have their photo taken with The Stanley Cup over at Amalie Arena right here in Tampa, Florida. What an honor it was. We captured 79 photos with one of our member’s new iPhone 12 and the reason I find that impressive is that we had only 2 minutes for our time with Sir Stanley for photos. As the Chapter Administrator, I had created a list of the photos we needed to secure with signs made Celebrating the Lightning’s victory and our partnership with the Lightning Foundation for these prestigious and generous awards. (Again, I invite you to see the photos on our Facebook page right around late November 2020!)

As we round the turn towards the end of this challenging and sometimes heartbreaking year called 2020 we realize that the epidemic of opioid overdose is raging within this pandemic. The feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression that have come about due to COVID 19’s stay-at-home orders and social distancing directives have combined to find us with an increase in mental health challenges which oftentimes go hand-in-hand with substance use disorders. Opioid use is on the increase. Accidental overdoses are on the rise. Overdose deaths are surpassing the numbers recorded just last year. And now, we head into winter where the isolation in many parts of the country increases due to the geography of where they live and the weather. If ever there was a need for every single one of us to reach out to THREE people today that we know are struggling with mental health challenges or feelings of isolation and loneliness now is the time. Make the phone call right now and make sure they are doing okay. We are not expecting to hear “GREAT” but okay will do and spend some time really listening. Go over to that neighbor’s home later today and bring a cup of tea or a plate of cookies and let them know you are there for them. It just takes all of us making that effort a little bit each day to make all the difference in the entire WORLD.

So, the scholarships, the Stanley Cup, and substance use disorder have NOPE of Hillsborough in common in case you had not gotten to that conclusion by now. We are at the heart of all three topics of conversation. We as a chapter have a passion for students carrying our stories & messages into the future. We as a group of individuals are super enthusiastic about hockey, the sport, and the fact that we love, love, love our Tampa Bay Lightning. We as families brought together by substance use disorder pray for the continued healing of our nation and its people in regard to all aspects – political and nonpartisan issues, addiction, and the disease that it truly is, the health crisis that still grips our nation and world, and on and on and on. Let us all continue to be here for one another. Let us all continue to be kind and respectful of others, their feelings, their points of view,