When S.T.A.N.D. Coalition Executive Director Trent Coffey got a phone call last Monday evening (August 27) from his contact at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, he had no idea of the whirlwind week he was about to embark on. He thought he was just being invited to the White House — an honor in and of itself, he said — but little clue that he was about to be asked to attend a roundtable discussion with the President of the United States.
Two days later, Coffey and the youth representative of S.T.A.N.D. Coffey chose to accompany him to Washington, recent Scott High School graduate Jacob Hughett, were seated with President Donald Trump in the West Wing of the White House. But another surprise was in order. When you’re in the room with the President of the United States and a host of media, you don’t necessarily think you’re going to have an opportunity to speak. But Hughett was about to be called upon to do just that.
Coffey was about to leave his office at around 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of August 27 when he received a phone call from Washington asking, “Are you free the next couple of days?” His response? “Well, I can be.”
Twenty-four hours later, Coffey and Hughett were on a flight to the nation’s capitol. By that time, they knew they were to meet the president, though they didn’t know the president would address each of them personally during his remarks.
The occasion was Trump’s announcement of millions of dollars in new funding for community anti-drug education coalitions like S.T.A.N.D. Of the more than 750 federally-funded coalitions like S.T.A.N.D. across the nation, the local organization was one of just six chosen to attend last week’s announcement. The purpose of S.T.A.N.D.’s attendance was to represent a rural community representative of the rural communities nationwide that are battling an epidemic of drug abuse.
“I was chosen to be there from a rural community perspective and show them how important dollars are to fight drugs in our area,” Coffey said. “They know we don’t have support services, we don’t have a lot of outreach, we don’t have things that metropolitan and urban areas have. Some of the money that comes here, that is sometimes all we get for prevention work. There’s no philanthropy, no other financial support. Ninety-eight percent of our funding is grant-based. We don’t have fundraisers.”
When Coffey was asked to choose one of the community’s youth to accompany him to Washington, he immediately turned to Hughett, who graduated from Scott High in the spring and ran for a seat on County Commission in last month’s general election.
“Jacob was selected to go because he has taken instruction, he has listened to the evidence-based strategies we taught him, he’s worked events and training over the last four years, and all that time he knew that I expected his best,” Coffey said. “I chose him because of his dedication and enthusiasm and I’m glad to say he far exceeded my expectations.”
“I knew it was going to be an honor,” Coffey said of getting a call to represent rural communities at a White House function. “I knew I was going to be able to stand with my funders and announce their 20 years of funding.” But, he added, “I had no idea that I was going to meet Trump.”
For a long time, Coffey and Hughett weren’t even sure they would actually be traveling to Washington. Confirmation of the trip didn’t come Monday night, as they had expected. But at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, Coffey got an email confirming that he was to attend and instructing him to complete a long list of tasks for White House security clearance within a matter of hours.
By 11:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, Coffey was on a conference call with others who were attending the event. That’s when he learned that the president would be in attendance at the event.
“I was like, what?!” Coffey said with a laugh.
'That's a beautiful job'
Coffey first spoke to representatives of the president’s team, speaking of the impact federal dollars have had on S.T.A.N.D.’s efforts to improve the quality of life in Scott County and the challenges that remain.
“Our unemployment rate was 23 percent when we started working on environmental strategies and prevention efforts in our community,” Coffey said. “One point five years ago, it was a little over nine percent. Now it’s a little over three percent. The economic policies are working. We went from not having opportunity to having opportunity. But we can’t fill the jobs we have right now because of the effects of opioid abuse. The jobs are there but we have to heal our community in order to build an adequate work force to fill those jobs.”
After that, Coffey and Hughett were ushered, along with the rest of the representatives, into the West Wing. Trump and his White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, entered the room shortly thereafter.
“They said when the president comes in it’s going to get really wild, because they’ll let the media in,” Coffey said. And indeed they did, with 70 members of the press crowding into the relatively small West Wing.
Trump, who is well known for going off-message and ignoring pre-laid agendas, turned at one point and pointed to Hughett, who was seated across the table and to the right of the president, asking, “Would you like to say something?”
Hughett had no idea he would be called upon to speak in front of the president and a national television audience, but he took advantage of the opportunity, telling Trump about his family’s drug and alcohol abuse and how he, through the help of S.T.A.N.D. and his parents, has been able to overcome.
“S.T.A.N.D. altered my life,” Hughett said. “My family has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. My parents, they were the exception. I kind of realize the good life I’ve had, they weren’t able to.”
Hughett spoke of his grandfather, a World War II veteran who was wounded and turned to alcohol to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also spoke of the value his family has placed on education, and the doors it has opened for him.
“My entire life, my dad has pushed me to get an education and my mom has taught me how to use it,” Hughett said. “I will not stop advocating for my county until every child has the same opportunity I have.”
The president was impressed with Hughett’s unscripted remarks.
“That was a great job,” Trump said. “Thank you very much and say hello to everybody. I’m proud of you. That’s a beautiful job.”
'A great advocate'
Towards the end of his address, Trump spoke of a new program that is using grant dollars to put former inmates to work upon their release from jail after they’ve been convicted on drug-related charges. That is a program that Coffey has advocated for.
“When people come out of prison now they can actually get jobs and they’re really liked by a lot of the employers,” Trump said. “We’ve had tremendous success. We’ve never had that before. Employers are hiring people that maybe they would not have given a chance to.”
Then he turned and acknowledged Coffey, who was seated three seats to his left.
“It’s worked out very well,” Trump said to Coffey. “You’re one of the great advocates.”
It was a proud moment for Coffey, having his work acknowledged by the President of the United States. But he was also proud of Hughett, a product of the S.T.A.N.D. Coalition’s efforts.
“My main focus going up there was to advocate for my community and my county,” Coffey said. “Jacob was a great ambassador. And that’s a result of what we’re trying to teach our community’s children. We want them to be able to go meet the president. We want every child to be like Jacob.”
An engaging president
Those were words Coffey used to describe Trump in the person.
"The media always makes him look like a disheveled mess but he wasn't," Coffey said. "He was put together. He was real personable with us. He looked us in the eye when he spoke to us. He listened to what the pre-meeting was about, because he knew some things I had said and what our group had said. He was very complimentary of us."
Coffey said the president told the group a story about a brother who had died an alcoholic.
"He's not portrayed right in the media," Coffey said. "Fox News thinks he's God and CNN thinks he's the devil. But there's an in-between in there. It brought a human aspect to it. I really feel like he listened and he's trying to do the right thing as far as this discipline is concerned. I can't speak to anything else, just my discipline and what we're doing."