The year was 1998. Kenzie Kretzmeier, not quite two years old, appeared on the cover of Indiana Prairie Farmer, held by her mother, Kristi. The article was foreboding: "Today's tough task: raising country kids." The subtitle laid it on the line: "Experts say rural Indiana is no longer a safe haven. But the Kretzmeiers still prefer raising Kenzie on the farm."
A sidebar went even further: "Sobering facts face rural Hoosiers." The sidebar featured facts from Rural Indiana Profile, a report which just released by Drug Strategies, a Washington, D.C. based, research institute. The study was funded indirectly by Lily endowment and the Governor's Commission for a Drug-Free Indiana. You can still find the report online. Unfortunately, to our knowledge, it hasn't been repeated.
Seventy-one of Indiana's 92 counties were classified as rural in 1998. Key findings included: 1) Use rate for alcohol, tobacco and most other drugs was higher in rural Indiana than urban counties; 2) Forty percent of rural high-school sophomores smoked, compared to 35% in urban Indiana and 40% nationwide; and 3) Rural kids used as much or more alcohol as urban kids, twice as many used smokeless tobacco and they used illegal drugs at substantially higher figures than the national average.
In addition, of 2,794 people who died of AIDS in Indiana from 1981 through 1997, 466 lived in rural counties.
Fast forward to November 2015. Kenzie Kretzmeier blossomed into the 2015-2016 Indiana FFA State president. She's been on national winning soil judging teams and has showed cattle, sheep and hogs at county, regional, state and national shows.
Her mom and dad, John and Kristi, still live on the same farm where the 1998 photo was taken. Kenzie has a younger brother and sister, also heavily involved in livestock and 4-H projects. John and Kristi face challenges many other farm families face, and meet them head on.
Meanwhile, the alcohol, tobacco and drug situation in rural Indiana hasn't improved. The twist this year was outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis related to drug users sharing infected needles. The epicenter was in Scott County, specifically Austin, although other counties face the same issue.
The issue was so grim articles appeared in both New York and Los Angeles newspapers. Governor Pence reluctantly agreed to a free needle exchange program in Scott County. That's Scott County, Indiana, not New York City, not Los Angeles.
Governor Pence appointed a task force last summer to explore the best way to fight drug addiction.
An Associated Press article reported that heroin-related deaths in Indiana rose from 16 in 2007 to 152 in 2013.
The Drug Task Force has met three times, and released recommendations. Some have been acted upon. Some could require legislative action.
Is there a take-home message? Perhaps it's that you can still raise responsible kids in rural Indiana, if you're aware of the challenges and willing to become involved in your children's lives. The temptations for kids to veer off course are out there, perhaps more so today than ever before.