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After Speaking Up About Substance Abuse, Keene Woman Prepares for DNC Spotlight

Casey McDermott, NHPR
When Pam Livengood volunteered to be part of a Clinton campaign event last year, she never imagined it would lead her to the Democratic National Convention.

To say that Pam Livengood made an impression on Hillary Clinton’s campaign might be an understatement.

The Keene resident first met Clinton last year, on the candidate’s first campaign visit to New Hampshire. At the time, she spoke up about how her family’s been affected by the state’s substance abuse crisis – she took over guardianship of her grandson a few years ago because of issues stemming from her daughter's drug addiction.

In the months that followed that initial conversation, the campaign kept in touch – to check in on how Livengood's family was doing, or invite her to participate in events they were organizing. Livengood, who works full-time in addition to taking care of her grandson, was never able to make it.

But then, a few weeks ago, Livengood got a different kind of invitation: This time, the Clinton campaign wanted to know if she’d be willing to speak at the Democratic National Convention.

“Apparently they tried to call my home a couple of times, which I didn’t answer. Then they emailed my boss, and he forwarded the email along to me,” Livengood says. “Again — I let it sit on the counter a couple of days.”

At first, Livengood held off on responding – as she put it, the whole thing “took [her] breath away.” But the campaign persisted.

One night not too long ago, Livengood’s house phone started ringing. Then, her cell phone. Then, a car pulled up outside.

Soon enough, there she was, talking to three people from the Clinton camp – two on the phone, one sitting on the arm of her couch.

“I was like, OK, you found me,” Livengood recalled, laughing. “You got me! What do you want me to do?”

Now, Livengood’s preparing to take the stage in Philadelphia to share her story with an audience bigger than she ever imagined – in fact, it’s a story she didn’t even expect to be sharing in the first place.

Fifteen months ago, when her boss at Whitney Brothers – a children’s furniture company in Keene – said Clinton was planning to stop by and wanted to talk to some employees, Livengood didn’t hesitate. (Livengood’s admired Clinton ever since she was First Lady, and she voted for her the first time she ran for president in 2008.)

“My hand shot up in the air first,” Livengood says. “I was like, oh my gosh. That sounds so exciting!”

But when Livengood showed up the day of the event, she thought she’d just talk a little bit about the challenges facing small businesses. That all changed, though, when she had a chance to meet Clinton just a few minutes before the event began.

“I think her first stop was in Iowa before she came to New Hampshire,” Livengood says. “And she said the first thing she was hit with when she got off the bus was substance abuse.”

Clinton asked if any of the Whitney Brothers employees felt comfortable talking about that issue publicly.

“And I was,” Livengood recalled. “She says, ‘Good. Don’t be afraid to speak up.’ So, I did.”

For the last four years, Livengood has been serving as a guardian for her grandson, Francis, because of his parents' struggles with addiction. The problems began after Francis was born, Livengood says: A doctor gave his mother a prescription for some opioid medication, and it snowballed from there.

Eventually, the state’s child protection division got involved.

“They called me and said that, you know, if we get one more call on your daughter, we’re moving in,” Livengood says. “I couldn’t have that. I just couldn’t have it. It would have broke our hearts, all of us.”

So Livengood, along with Francis’s other grandparents, stepped in. And in New Hampshire, their story is far from uncommon.

The state’s seen an uptick in child protection cases in recent years, driven in part by the substance abuse crisis. Nearly one-third of New Hampshire kids in foster care placement right now are living with relatives. And across New Hampshire, support groups have cropped up specifically designed to help out grandparents like Livengood who are now in charge of raising their grandchildren.

When Livengood finally sat down at that roundtable with Clinton, she told the candidate about having to start taking care of Francis, and about a scarcity of treatment options in the area.

“The growing drug problem in our area… My grandson’s mother can’t be quite so responsible. So we picked it up and took over,” Livengood said at the time. “But we also need to see more for substance abuse help in our area. There’s very limited resources here. Would like to see something in that respect. Do you have any further ideas?”

“I’m really concerned,” Clinton responded, “Because, Pam, what you just told me, I’m hearing from a lot of people. There is a hidden epidemic.”

Clinton vowed to make substance abuse and mental health a priority – making her one of many politicians from both parties, at the state and national level, who have made addressing drug abuse part of their campaign platforms in the last year.

On the campaign trail in New Hampshire and beyond, Clinton’s said conversations with people like Livengood helped to open her eyes to the toll that the opioid epidemic is taking on people across the country. Livengood, for her part, is grateful to have played a part in elevating the conversation.

“When, I think it was a little bit of a surprise. But I think I touched her heart. I really do,” Livengood says. “Because she has, she’s reached out to me a couple of times, inquiring how Francis is doing. And I’m like oh my goodness – this is amazing.”

Since Livengood accepted the invitation to speak at the DNC, there have been a flurry of emails: connecting her with staffers helping to set up accommodations, a special speaker tracker and even a professional speechwriter who has penned remarks for President Obama.

Before the speech was drafted, Livengood says she spoke with the writer for about 25 minutes. Then, the plan was for Livengood to review the writer’s first draft a few days before the convention, giving her a chance to make any adjustments so that she felt like it reflected her own voice.

On Monday, Livengood will take the stage as part of a lineup of speeches built around the theme “United Together: Putting Families First.” She’ll be speaking alongside a family from Nevada worried about the possibility of deportation, and a woman from New York who advocates for those with disabilities.

She’s hoping that sharing her story on this national platform, as she did at that roundtable a year ago in Keene, might help other families struggling with substance abuse to realize they’re not alone.

“You know, it doesn’t discriminate. It does not. From teachers to doctors and nurses,” Livengood says. “It’s gone everywhere. It’s not a 1960s, you know, gutter addict. It’s not like that. It could be anybody in your crowd."

But above all, she’s hoping to really get across one message: “All I really want is, just don’t.. don’t forget about the kids.”

These days, Livengood’s daughter is doing much better than she was four years ago – she’s in treatment, and she’s now able to be a part of Francis’s life. She knows about the speech, and she’s OK with her mother sharing her story.

And as Livengood prepares to take the stage in Philadelphia to tell that story, she’s feeling especially lucky to have this opportunity.

“I hope that I will be standing on the stage talking, and then in November, having been part of history for the first woman president in the United States,” Livengood says. “That would be amazing.”

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