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Valerie Rust and her husband, Stan, started the Starfish Project of Richland County almost 10 years ago. 

MANSFIELD – The late actor Michael K. Williams, 54, who passed away on Labor Day of a suspected drug overdose, was very candid about his struggle with addiction as well as an advocate for those seeking sobriety. 

“You know, I’m in the (addiction) club as well,” Williams said in his “WTF” Podcast in February, referring to his recovery. “And, you know, anybody that has heard me speak before, I’m not shy about it. You know, relapse to me is part of my story... but I'm living good today. All we got is today.”

Sadly, not that long after the interview with Maron, Williams was found dead. The death is being investigated as a possible drug overdose, according to the New York Police Department. He was reportedly found by his nephew at his penthouse in his Williamsburg neighborhood in New York. 

Valerie Rust of The Starfish Project of Richland County said it shook her when she heard the news of his passing. She sympathized with Williams’ family’s loss.

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Valerie Rust of The Starfish Project Richland County.

“He was one of my favorite actors. I thought he had it,” she said, adding, “(We) can’t take sobriety for granted.”

She also knows what it is like to have a loved one, who’s struggling with the issue firsthand.

Rust has spoken and continues to candidly speak about her experiences with her own son, Jesse Reed’s, battle with addiction and his initial quest for treatment and recovery. His experience was one of several reasons why Rust and her husband, Stan, started the local organization, almost 10 years ago. 

In addition to helping her son with his struggles with addiction as a teen and battle to get his life back on a positive track after serving time for a drug-related offense, she continues to study the topic as well. She said she lives and breathes addiction recovery.

Rust is very open about her son choosing a faith-based route to treatment and recovery. He went through a Teen Challenge program, which is a faith-based non-profit headquartered in Ozark Missouri.

She noted he completed 12 months of treatment, first closer to home and then in Saint Louis. She further elaborated that her son, who is presently a pastor, has been sober for about 15 years and is very involved in the community in Missouri where he is also working on an outreach project there. 

He also goes into churches and preaches about his addiction. Plus, he is married to the daughter of one of the pastors who was also instrumental in getting him help, she said.

While Teen Challenge was a great option for their son, Rust acknowledged that all paths of recovery are equally valuable.  

“We’re faith-based, obviously, we are willing to go outside of faith-based treatment, if that is what the person needs,” she said. 

Eventually, the Rusts partnered with Sheriff Steven J. Sheldon and Pastor Snyder of Shelby to start the Starfish Project of Richland County. They created the organization in an effort to help other residents in Richland County who were, likewise, in need of treatment and other resources, to begin their own journey to recovery and wellness as well. She said they were already helping people before starting the Starfish project.

“When the project began, the team focused on providing resources to place people in recovery programs,” Hunt wrote. “As we started, we realized that people have a lot of barriers to treatment. Now, we try to eliminate those barriers whenever possible so that people can have a clearer path to recovery.”

In addition to advocacy and raising awareness and putting other resources, such as transportation to meetings, raising money for scholarships for faith-based treatment and additional resources that are conducive to recovery in place, it’s been a part of their mission ever since.  

Rust explained that people don’t just need help with the substance, but also with the life issues that lead them to addiction, whether it's trauma or not having a good family, etc. She wants to use her knowledge, experiences and organization to help walk along their journey with them.

As difficult as the journey can be at times, “(We've) got a lot of people who are doing well,” she said. 


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Rose Marie Feagin is a former Award-winning Reporter and Freelance Writer. Born in Alabama and raised in Ohio, she simultaneously roots for Alabama Crimson Tide as well as The Ohio State Buckeyes, which are, two of her favorite football teams.

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