Despite a reasonably solid manufacturing base, as well as scenic lakes and hills that attract tourists, the Appalachian region he calls home was troubled by a depressed economy and high rates of incarceration, largely fueled by drug and alcohol addiction.
Although he had a grueling travel schedule for his concrete restoration company, he began to volunteer as a jailhouse minister. “I started spending time, one on one, with the prisoners. And what I heard, over and over again, is that ‘when I get out of here, I’m never coming back.’
“But what I saw is that they’d cycle back in. They always had the same excuse — ‘I can’t get a job and the only place I have to live is the same place as I did before, which is full of drugs.’
“I did this for about three years, and, about two years ago, felt God calling, to address this. And I started thinking about a program of how to offer these men training and a job.”
His calling led to the creation in 2016 of Better Made Trailers, a small company in Jacksboro, the county seat, that manufactures trailers for hauling. He started BMT, as it is known, “specifically to create jobs to work on this program.” A few months later, he heard that Bushtec, a local business that makes motorcycle trailers, was about to close. He approached the owners and bought it. “That’s when I realized I had a big opportunity to get this program going.”
— The History
Nearly 1,000 people turned out for a fall barbecue of hamburgers, hot dogs and all the trimmings to mark what they hoped would be a turning point in the region’s struggle because of efforts by Simpson and others.
The county, near the Kentucky border, has often earned the designation of a “distressed” county — among the worst in the nation — according to a classification by the Appalachian Regional Commission largely based on census data.
The common narrative tells a story of a region, long dependent on coal, that suffered economically when the demand dropped. That in turn, it is said, spurred a drug crisis among the jobless.
But a more nuanced and more accurate view is that the decline in coal production and accompanying job loss coincided with something much more devastating: a spike in prescriptions for opioids, among other pain medications, as well as an increase in substance abuse generally.
And that increase caused a drop in employment, according to Matthew Murray, a professor at the University of Tennessee who is studying the interaction of opioid use and labor markets. “Opioid use has a large impact on both unemployment rates as well as employment participation rates,” indicators of the health of a local economy.
Indeed, Campbell County, with a population of about 40,000, has the third-highest per capita rate of opioid prescriptions in the nation. The amount prescribed, according to a federal Centers for Disease Control spokeswoman, “was enough for every individual in the county to be medicated around the clock for 15 weeks.” The overdose rate is also among the highest in the country. And the Campbell County unemployment rate in August was 5 percent; the national rate was 3.9 percent.
While there are no definitive numbers, Andy Wallace, deputy mayor for the county, estimates that over 95 percent of those jailed committed offenses that were in some way related to drug use.
— The Idea
Simpson, without any formal training in rehabilitation and lacking even a prototype of a program, dove in. Initially, he hired a few men with felony charges, but “with managing a new business and doing the program, I realized I couldn’t do both.” That’s when he brought in Stacy and Dave Bosch, who had run a Bible camp but also were involved with Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based program to help overcome addiction. Stacy Bosch had also worked at a local recovery home for women, but in an administrative position.
Even with the Bosches on board to run A New Beginning, the name of the nonprofit Simpson formed, it was a lot tougher than he anticipated. Some would come in, “still jonesing,” Dave Bosch said, meaning that they were still withdrawing from drug use.
“We didn’t know how to sift through the applications and pretty much took anyone,” Stacy Bosch said, adding, that “now we ask how long they’ve been clean. The longer they’ve been off drugs, there’s more success, because they’ve done it for themselves and not just for a job.”
Some finessed the drug testing the company did. “People knew how to play the game,” Simpson said. “We have a four-day workweek, so Thursday was party night” since retesting didn’t occur until the next week. Now, the testing is done more frequently.
They realized that a two-hour interview was insufficient and that, more important, many were unprepared to go from jail to work. Now, those accepted after extensive interviewing start a two-week life-skills course that includes classes on health, hygiene, cooking and renting, as well as car maintenance and computer skills. Religion isn’t a prerequisite, and Bible classes are optional.
There’s a six-month training program to learn the skills for the job, like welding or painting, during which time participants are paid $10 an hour. (Once they graduate and are considered permanent employees, their salaries jump to $12 an hour, and they’re eligible for another raise three months later. The state’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the federal rate.)
With so many advances in manufacturing, including the automating of many tasks, Simpson considered buying a robotic welding tool that would ultimately save money and improve efficiencies. But, he said, “we made a choice not to automate” to keep those jobs for the men in the program.
— The Program
Since its inception in September 2017, 23 men have participated in the program. Of those, 10 have graduated and three are getting ready to work, Stacy Bosch said. Jason Cox, whooriginally had been jailed for vandalism, and then served additional time for failing to pay his fines, was one of the first hired. “I had been out of jail for a month and a half. I was looking for work and getting a lot of nos.” But he heard about the program from a family friend, passed a two-hour intake and was hired.
He was assigned to the shipping area. Within a few months, the woman running the department left for another job and Cox was promoted. He brings another skill that he had undervalued: an affinity for computers that emerged only after Dave Bosch casually asked about hobbies. That skill has been put to use frequently, said Keith Simpson, who is Tony Simpson’s first cousin and vice president of operations for BMT, as well as the president of a new division, Dyna Hauler.
Shane Wyatt heard about the program from his cellmate, who had written to Stacy Bosch. He liked what she had to say. “If you’re not 100 percent in, there’s no sense in coming,” he recalled. Wyatt liked the tough-love approach which, he said, also included compassion. He now works for the company, pressure-washing and painting trailers.
Others with a history of substance abuse have been hired outside the program. Becky Goney, for example, a welder, had gone through a recovery court and then trained at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology here to learn how to weld. The recovery court, training and employment, she said, have kept her clean and enabled her to be with her three children again.
That court was created roughly 11 years ago by Judge E. Shayne Sexton of Criminal Court who still administers the program, in addition to presiding over the criminal courts. He essentially wears two robes because of his dual roles, but he is committed to the program, which seeks to rehabilitate some accused of crimes while they’re young.
“We believe that much of addiction — to both drugs and alcohol — comes from a lot of chaos,” Sexton said. “We’re trying to eliminate that by showing how to live on one’s own, find housing and get employment. But until the Simpsons put together their program, we’ve always had a hard time finding employment” for those with a past.
Many of the region’s programs to assist in rehabilitation are faith-based, an indication of the continued importance of churches in residents’ lives. Some, like Celebrate Recovery, are akin to Alcoholics Anonymous or its counterpart, Narcotics Anonymous. Those who have recovered through them attest to their help.
Spirituality can help those trying to overcome addiction, said Kenneth E. Leonard, director of the Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo, but you “can’t just pray these problems away,” Sexton said. Leonard and Sexton said that steady work was critically important.
“We’ve known since the late 1960s that employment is a powerful predictor of low patterns of alcohol use and better responses to treatment,” Leonard said. “Similarly, some data suggests that when those addicted to opiates are stably employed and in a relationship with someone who doesn’t use drugs, the outcomes are better.”
He added that with opioids, 60 to 80 percent have relapsed to some extent within six months. But with regular drug testing, only 1 out of 23 of those hired has relapsed, Stacy Bosch said.
Not everyone thought the program was a good idea at the beginning. Keith Simpson acknowledges that he was opposed initially. But he’s now a fan of the program, so much so that he has co-signed a lease with one of the men in the program, because securing suitable housing is a problem for those with a felony past.
To deal with that problem, they are building a 30-bed building for transitional housing. The 1-acre site, across from the factory, has been graded and construction should begin soon, Simpson said.
— The Economics
Campbell County has an active tourism business that accounts for $59 million a year in revenue, largely centered on boating on its lakes and off-roading in the surrounding mountains, according to Wallace. While that gives rise to jobs, the work is seasonal and often low paying.
The county also has a manufacturing economy. BSH Home Appliance Corp. has manufactured Thermador ranges and ovens at its plant in LaFollette for more than 20 years. Including a cooking technology center in Caryville, Tennessee, the company employs more than 330 people, according to a spokesman, Joe Foster.
Recently, another native, Rick Teague, in partnership with a German company, formed Telos Global, based in Caryville, which specializes in press-hardened steel and aluminum stampings used in the automotive industry. As a new company, its workforce largely consists of engineers, but as he rolls out production, he hopes to follow Simpson’s lead and train and employ some coming out of jail.
In September, Teague’s European account manager came to Campbell County to tour the local vocational school, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, to determine if the school could train future employees.
Simpson also has bigger plans for his company and his program. He and his cousin Keith Simpson recently acquired Dyna Hauler, which will produce equipment, known as the DynaDolly, used to transport shipping containers in lieu of a flatbed truck. With those containers increasingly being put to use for houses and offices, there’s a need to move them more easily, Simpson explained. To produce this new line, he is refurbishing an abandoned factory in Jellico, Tennessee, perhaps the poorest municipality in the county. That factory, when up and running, will employ 100 people.
They’re “trying to create their own workforce, which is very noble,” Murray said. “It is, however, a risky and costly endeavor.” The risks have been manageable. The costs are significant: Tony Simpson says he has personally invested more than $500,000 to get the New Beginning program running.
While Simpson has focused on men, he is planning a program to help women who have served time. Some, says Keith Simpson, are skilled in the long-standing sewing traditions of Appalachia, and they hope to mobilize these women to work in the textile industry.
The problem of substance abuse is widespread. But because of the glimmers of hope, Stacy Bosch suggested, somewhat offhandedly in a group call in August, that they have a municipal gathering to celebrate those in recovery.
On Sept. 21, in LaFollette, the biggest town in the county, the crowd that had gathered for the free dinner, heard Christian-themed music and speeches acknowledging the challenges, as well as the success stories.
Many shared their stories of addiction and rehabilitation. They lamented what many considered a “lost generation” and a large number of grandparents raising their grandchildren because of parents lost to substance abuse.
Those involved say it’s a process.
“We’re not just training to work here, but we want to change Campbell County,” Dave Bosch said. “We want to see more qualified people so we’re attractive to people. We want them to know there’s a skilled workforce.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.