Annual MATFORCE event “Walk With Me, Be Drug Free” at Mortimer Farms.
by Blake Herzog
MATFORCE has been doing heroic work in Yavapai County since 2006 to reduce
drug abuse and addiction and the toll it takes on families and communities.
A coalition of law enforcement and social service agencies, schools and more than 300 volunteers working across a myriad of programs, the organization and Executive Director Merilee Foster have won national awards.
“I love when it has the name MATFORCE on it instead of my name because I have to share it with so many people,” Fowler says. “I have some skills and I feel like I’ve been a part of the success, but I know there’s just been so many other people that I have to share it with and I’m so grateful to them. So, I think, well, I’m going to share this, there’s lots of heroes.”
Her latest commendation further proves the value of teamwork.
In June she was given the Outstanding Public Health/Public Safety Collaboration Effort Award by the Office of National Drug Control Policy for helping to lead a project team assembling a “toolkit” of high-quality information in English and Spanish on the dangers of fentanyl, the basis of a statewide media campaign run during the summer when the most overdose deaths occur.
Fowler has led MATFORCE since January 2007, shortly after it was formed by local leaders to stem the rising tide of methamphetamine use.
She’s been able to keep it and the adjacent Community Counts initiative ahead of the drug crisis since then through its deep involvement in schools and the community, picking up on issues before they grow more out of control.
MATFORCE has formed the state’s first Overdose Fatality Review Board and a reentry program for former inmates that has been replicated in six counties.
She says, “We’re really looking at, you know, root causes, risk and protective factors, and what can we do to enhance protective factors. What can we do to reduce risk factors? What can we do to help them with the reasons that they think they are using drugs and to combat those?”
Fowler oversees an array of programs addressing many factors including suicide prevention, safe medication disposal, a speaker’s bureau, a community garden and, most recently, a diaper bank.
She is a sought-after speaker herself and in 2017 founded Substance Abuse Leaders Coalition of Arizona, which today has 49 member agencies. And MATFORCE continues to make gains for the community, noting an 11% decrease in overdose deaths in the county from 2020 to 2021, the first decline in five years of tracking.
Still, 74 were reported over that timeframe. Fowler has persevered for 16 years in a field notorious for worker burnout.
“I feel so fortunate to be the director of an amazing organization with so many amazing individuals that have done great work,” she says. “We don’t take our money lightly. We don’t take our mission lightly. And I think that goes back to the success of it, we’re going to do the best we can to fight
a very complicated problem.”