With the launch of Destiny Ministries, Diane and Tim Epling had a vision that goes well beyond gathering in God's name and giving Him praise each week.
It is in their hearts to serve the community. With the opioid epidemic that has gripped West Virginia, they have an avenue for fulfilling that calling.
"Our state is dying," Tim Epling said. "Opioids have literally destroyed (lives). Everybody's been affected by that. In some form or fashion, somebody has been affected by it. And it's not getting any better. When you put God in something, He will give you the vision to be able to take things to a whole new level. That's what we are going to do."
Flanked by a host of dignitaries, the Eplings unveiled their plan Tuesday at Linda K. Epling Stadium, the venue owned by Tim's parents Linda and Doug that has been serving the community since 2010. Epling Stadium will be the site of two big events aimed to ultimately eliminate the opioid crisis.
The first of two I AM Ingatherings will take place Oct. 19 and will feature Bishop Fred T. Simms of Heart of God Ministries. The church's choir will also be there, and they will be joined by Kaylee and Erica Tuttle and Pastors Jamie and Judy Jacobs.
That will lead into a big weekend set for May 1-2, 2020. Former New York Mets star Darryl Strawberry will bring his testimony to Beckley. Strawberry was a four-time World Series champion and eight-time all-star. He played for the Mets from 1983-1990 before playing stints with the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees.
Strawberry understands the hold drugs can take on a person's life. He served a suspension in the 1995 season for cocaine use, and in 2000 was arrested after rear-ending a vehicle while under the influence of a painkiller. At the time, he was on parole for a previous arrest of soliciting and cocaine possession.
He and his wife Tracy met while the two were in a drug recovery and are now ordained ministers. They operate Strawberry Ministries and travel all over the country to serve as an outreach to people dealing with addiction through biblical counseling and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Epling met Strawberry at the King's Table Men's Conference in Cleveland, Tenn., in May. They share two interests — God and baseball — and a bond was immediately formed.
"We were sitting there talking and ... he told me his passion is to go into high schools, middle schools and grade schools and speak to them about his experiences and about this drug issue," Epling said. "When he said that, I knew by reading all the reports and everything in the paper and the news media that the opioid crisis here was really bad. We're rated No. 1 (in opioid-related deaths).
"He goes, 'I've been trying to get into West Virginia and I just didn't have the contact.' Bingo! So we're sitting there talking and I said, 'Let's make something happen.'"
The statistics concerning opioid addiction and its effects in West Virginia are alarming.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 833 opioid deaths in West Virginia in 2017, by far the most in the nation. That averages out to 49.6 deaths per 100,000 people, more than three times the national rate of 14.6.
Addiction takes its toll on the family dynamic. According to literature provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics and handed out at Tuesday's press conference, of the number of West Virginia children placed in foster care in 2016, 16 percent were infants. In 47 percent of those placements, parental substance use was a factor.
"The purpose and goals of the I AM Ingathering is to create a heightened awareness and a model for treatment that includes faith, and promote individual treatment focus versus problem focus, and incorporates family-centered policies," Diane Epling said. "We will also advocate for tools to recognize, treat and support youth and families to lessen the impact of the opioid crisis. It is our belief that these goals will make an impact and reduce the ... West Virginia statistics."
"This is desperately needed in southern West Virginia, everybody knows that. And all over the state," West Virginia State Treasurer John D. Perdue said. "Statistics don't lie, and it's proof that we have to have people step up to the plate and take a leadership role in making a huge difference for the state of West Virginia. I'm just blessed that you all are doing that, because our young people have to come out of high school with a good education and be able to get a good job somewhere without having the drug problems."
For more information on the Oct. 19 event, visit destinyministrieslife.com and click on the Events link. Information on the 2020 event — which will also feature Christian rapper Nate Davis a.k.a. Zero Doubt — will be available after that.
"The registration is free, but we would like to know how many are coming so we can make sure that we have the seating available," Diane Epling said. "We will have seating out here on the field.
"It's targeting the entire community. The community as a whole."
"Our goal is to take West Virginia from No. 1 to No. 50," Tim Epling said.
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