Anti-heroin crusaders spreading awareness in Monroe County

At right, April Clepper speaks to Gibault teachers about the dangers of heroin during a recent forum at the school. (submitted photo)

A “stop heroin movement” created last year in St. Louis is starting to make waves on this side of the river.

Group leaders have been speaking to Monroe County educators about potential warning signs to look for in students while pounding home the message that this danger is most certainly real.

One of the main cogs in this regional anti-heroin effort is April Clepper, 38, a Collinsville native who now resides in St. Louis. A recovering crack addict who has been clean for eight years, Clepper told the Republic-Times she has lost 29 friends to heroin.

Clepper said she has even tried heroin, but fortunately never got addicted. The same could not be said of her second cousin, who died of an overdose back in July.

In the metro-east alone, she said there have already been six suspected drug-related deaths this week.

“We’re just sick of it,” Clepper said. “They’re dropping like flies.”

Clepper’s 23-year-old niece and her 17-year-old friend started the movement in June 2011 as a way to fight the drug that was claiming the lives of some of their friends.

It started with group pages on Facebook and coordinating rallies throughout the area, but has since evolved into much more. Clepper said that after coming into contact with Columbia resident Ericha Sondag, the movement has started to build momentum in Monroe County.

“We try to get out and spread awareness and educate,” Clepper said. “The goal is to save the next person.”

Thanks to the diligent efforts of Sondag as well as Monroe County Coroner Vicki Koerber, anti-heroin crusaders have spoken with teachers at Waterloo High School, Gibault Catholic High School and Waterloo Junior High School over the past few months.

In addition to presentations from Clepper and Koerber, local teachers are exposed to others personally affected by the tragedies of heroin.

During a visit with WJHS teachers last week, Chris and Billy Duren of Red Bud talked about losing their son, Brandon, to the drug. Another speaker was 18-year-old recovering heroin addict Courtney Fiessinger of Waterloo. Fiessinger told the Republic-Times she has been clean for just more than six months.

But it’s been a hard road.

Twice expelled from high school and arrested for heroin possession, Fiessinger now works two jobs and is involved in a 12-step process to stay clean for good.

“It was pretty much anything I could get my hands on,” she said of her drug addiction. “But heroin was my drug of choice.”

Fiessinger said she first tried heroin during a party with older teens in Waterloo at the age of 14. While she didn’t initially like the drug at first, Fiessinger said she was drawn back to it as a way to cope with various personal issues she was dealing with a short time later.

Fiessinger maintains that drugs are a serious problem in Monroe County, and told teachers that warning signs to look for in students include constant tardiness, frequent requests to use the bathroom, nodding off during class and overall bad hygiene.

“I would go weeks without showering or even brushing my teeth,” Fiessinger said of her drug-using days.

Clepper credited Fiessinger as one of her movement’s “shining stars.”

And this anti-heroin movement needs more positive local examples. Columbia Police Chief Joe Edwards said that through October 2012, his department has made 19 arrests for possession of a controlled substance. That is up from just six such arrests during all of 2011. On the Columbia EMS side, Edwards said emergency personnel responded to five overdose or drug-related calls in 2011. This year, that number stands at 19.

“We’ve seen 14- and 15-year-olds with heroin in Waterloo,” Waterloo police officer Dave Midkiff told the audience during an “Addiction Town Hall” forum at Waterloo High School in February. “This isn’t just in the big cities.”

Heroin is derived from morphine, and affects the brain’s pleasure systems and interferes with its ability to perceive pain.

The most common way to take heroin in the past was through needle injection. But increased purity over recent years has resulted in more users snorting and smoking the drug.

The average street dose of heroin today can range anywhere from 40 to 80 percent pure. And it’s cheaper. One capsule can sell for around $10.

Clepper said the goal for her group is to hold anti-heroin forums involving Monroe County students and parents next year.

For more information on heroin addiction, visit On Facebook, visit the “Monroe, Randolph, St. Clair County Anti-Heroin Awareness” page at

Group leaders on both sides of the river are joining together to collect food items and clothes for innocent children that have been devastated by heroin addiction this holiday season.

For more information on how to help, call Misty Lang at 939-3958.

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