The Herren Project – THP Project Purple
Chris Herren, a basketball legend from Fall River, Massachusetts, realized his dreams by playing for the Celtics in the NBA, only to lose it all to addiction before rising again with a new dream. Chris’s story and his redemptive rise from the depths of addiction were captured through the publication of the book, Basketball Junkie, and the release of the ESPN Films documentary, Unguarded. As a result, Chris has received thousands of desperate calls for help from others facing addiction.
Drug-free and alcohol-free since August 1, 2008, Chris refocused his life to put his sobriety and family above all else. Three years later, he formed The Herren Project to increase education and public awareness on the dangers of substance abuse and to assist one person, one family at a time, through a combination of treatment navigation, educational initiatives, mentoring and public awareness.
We had the chance to talk with Chris recently and get his take on the strides being made in drug awareness, what he thinks parents need to know and all about The Herren Project’s Project Purple Initiative. You’re invited to listen in…
Heroes In Recovery: How has the landscape of drug awareness changed from when you started The Herren Project in 2011 to now?
Chris: I think the language around addiction has changed. I don’t think it’s where it’s supposed to be or needs to be yet. When it comes to addiction, I think we’ve really focused our energy and our resources on the worst day and not the first day, on how addiction ends rather than why it’s beginning. We never think of a child when we talk about an addict. We think of someone who’s suffering in the worst moment of their lives. I think if we really want to break the stigma, we have to focus our energy on both. We need to recognize the first day and understand the worst day.
HIR: In 2016, the US Surgeon General and the government officially acknowledged addiction as a public health issue for the first time ever. Looking forward, how do you think this will impact drug awareness in 2017 and for the future?
Chris: Treatment can be made more affordable. Insurance companies can become more cooperative. I also think that the government can launch campaigns around this: public awareness campaigns and prevention.
When you look at addiction, I think we’ve focused a lot of our resources in a lot of different places and yet we forgot about prevention. I’m in front of hundreds of high schools every year … thousands and thousands of students. The landscape has not changed when it comes to how we educate our kids.
There’s not enough time, there’s not enough energy, and there are not enough resources towards their education, awareness and prevention. My question is: how come wellness isn’t a core class in our kids’ education? We have them captive for 13 years where we can really build their self-esteem and self worth and address the many issues that kids face today … whether it’s bullying, social media, self harm, addiction, addiction within families. Yet we don’t offer it.
The reality is, we don’t give the younger generation a chance to express themselves and talk about what’s going on in their life. We walk them into schools with backpacks on and we put them in a desk and teach them biology, chemistry, geometry, algebra, and yet we forget the environment they’re coming from, and the kid that they’re becoming. There’s so much focus on academics and so little focus on their social and emotional growth.
HIR: We’re sitting down to talk during the official Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, a week dedicated to educating teens about addiction. Technology and social media seem to be creating more anxiety-ridden teenagers. Given the connection between anxiety and addiction, how can we can combat this to protect our youth from future addiction?
Chris: I can only imagine what it’s like to be a teenager today, where every move is documented, with every outfit there’s a picture, with every mistake … a public record. Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook — you name it. To wake up every morning with that type of social pressure is unfair. But to me, what’s more unfair is that there’s not enough discussion around it. There [aren’t] enough resources focused towards that stuff. That falls under the umbrella of wellness again …. The goal is to prevent before that cause and to understand where it’s coming from.
What’s wrong in elementary school with teaching kids how to care about others? To be nice to one another? To exercise and feel good? There’s nothing wrong with speaking openly about how you feel. I’ll speak in front of 1,500 kids, and I’ll have a 14-year-old girl raise her hand and tell me that she’s being molested by her stepfather in front of a whole school. That shouldn’t happen there, but it’s the only place that she feels comfortable because of the transparency that I’ve shown in the room. She feels like, this is a time I can let this go. That’s not the place for it, nor should it have to be.
HIR: Do you have some advice for parents and others out there looking to educate?
Chris: It all begins in a basement. It all begins with Solo cups and marijuana. Don’t hesitate to ask your kids why. I think when it comes to parents, when a kid comes home drunk or a kid comes home and you suspect him of smoking marijuana, the immediate focus is to blame someone else’s basement, to focus on their friends, to interrogate and investigate on where they got it, how they got it and how much they did. Nobody asks the question that really has the most meaning: “why.”
Why does my 15-, 16-, 17-year-old son feel the need to put drugs in their body to hang out with kids they’ve known their whole life? If you ask why, sometimes you get the answer you don’t want, but that’s the way you begin to understand. There are the parents that have a sense of denial, there are the parents that think I’ll close my eyes and I’ll pray it’s not my kid. If you’re that parent, you have to be prepared for the consequences, and the suffering that it’s not only going to cause your child, but your whole family …. As an adult, and as a father, I want to understand why my kids are doing it rather than interrogate them on where they got it.
HIR: Can you tell us a little more about the THP Project Purple Initiative?
Chris: The Herren Project was founded over five years ago. The THP Project Purple Initiative came a year later. To me, it was the eye-opening moment when I was presenting at an assembly. A little girl in a purple shirt announced during the Q & A that she was a sober student and it was followed up by laughter from her classmates. As I’m walking towards her with such pride in my eyes and admiration for this young lady, the laughter kind of froze me. I turned and looked at the kids laughing, and my first reaction was just to say, “Uh, I wish I’d never had to change myself. I wish I felt confident, I wish I felt comfortable enough on Friday nights to hang out with kids I’ve known my whole life, and leave drugs out of it.”
It’s about empowering kids, about giving them an outlet, an identity. To walk into schools and see kids dressed in THP Project Purple Initiative T-shirts like I did this morning where I spoke, it’s pretty amazing. I think a lot of the programs, especially in our school system, are built around perfection. This is about understanding and it’s about, as a teenager, as a student … about making the right choice and surrounding yourself with people that empower you to make the right choices.
For so long we sat back and accepted the fact that high school kids are going to get drunk, and high school kids are going to smoke pot. Shame on us as a society for … accepting that culture because there’s nothing normal about a 15-year-old kid doing drugs. It’s a very abnormal thing, and yet we’ve now as a society almost accepted it.
Find out more about Chris’ work at theherrenproject.org.