Consortium on Substance Abuse gets federal grant to address opioid epidemic

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BRATTLEBORO — In the summer, Chad Simmons had to explain what a hypodermic needle was to his 3-year-old daughter.

"We found one in our yard," the project coordinator for the Windham County Consortium on Substance Abuse and Brattleboro resident told the Select Board. "Of course, as a parent, I was furious. I was frustrated. I was angry. But believe me when I say the most painful thing, the most hurtful thing was the realization that my neighbors, folks in the community, are suffering, are dealing with addiction and don't have anywhere to go."

Simmons was joined at Tuesday's meeting by Ella Thorne-Thomsen, pathway guide at Turning Point, and Jedediah Popp, case worker at Health Care and Rehabilitation Services. They are members of the consortium, which is described as a collaborative effort among organizations working across the continuum of substance use prevention, treatment and recovery to fight against the opioid epidemic.

HCRS received a federal Health Resources and Services Administration Rural

Communities Opioid Response Program planning grant for about a year's worth of efforts that began in October. It is currently assessing existing programs and services available in the county, which has seen an increase in opioid-related deaths from 2017 to 2018 by going from 13 to 21.

"We're also beginning a several months long process to understand what we're doing, what we can be doing better and how we can be better serving folks in our community," said Simmons, adding that the group also "is considering the impacts of stigma and discrimination and how we talk about substance use disorder, and our families and our communities, and the systems that perpetuate that discrimination."

Thorne-Thomsen described herself as a person in recovery from opioid addiction for six years. She said she has been substance free for about four years.

Coming to Brattleboro to get away from people, places and things she associated with drugs, Thorne-Thomsen said she got "really lucky" by finding understanding landlords and an employer at The Works Bakery Cafe who allowed her to take breaks to get medication-assisted treatment.

"For myself, you know, using was a rational response to a life that was miserable and felt out of control for me," she said. "There were things broken in my life that were past the point of repair that I was certain were never going to be better again."

Through her job, Thorne-Thomsen said she has been able to work with partners invested in addressing drug issues.

Popp described "a very dark period" in his life in 2008: He woke up one morning on the bathroom floor of the restaurant where he worked after overdosing and went to jail for 30 days for violating probation.

"I had no idea where to turn to, where to ask for help," he said. "I didn't want to ask for help."

Leaving Bennington for Brattleboro in 2012, Popp said he found himself homeless for about two years. He recalled sleeping in front of a mattress store on cold concrete.

Now, Popp finds his job rewarding.

"I feel so good about myself when I go out in the community and I actually talk to people and I approach people like their life is really valuable," he said. "And to me, their life really is valuable."

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Popp said it is "beautiful" to watch agencies work toward one goal.

"We're kind of tearing down these silos we've created over these past 30, 40 years and we're forming connections. And what that does ultimately is create a sense of hope for me. And hope is essential in what we're facing and what we're up against."

Select Board Chairwoman Kate O'Connor told the speakers she appreciated hearing their stories. Living near one of the "top three drug houses" in town, she said she wants to stop people from going in and doing drugs.

"For me, it would be great to educate the rest of us on how we can help somebody who's going through this because in our town town, unfortunately, I think a lot of selling is going on," she said. "For me, I get really agitated that the people who are selling drugs get away with it. It's really aggravating. I see it as taking advantage of other human beings."

Board member Tim Wessel thanked the speakers for their stories and congratulated them on doing "great work."

"It's really important for everyone to hear these stories," he said. "People have a right to recover."

Select Board candidate Daniel Quipp said he started getting sober in New York City and has been in recovery in town for about four years.

"I think one of the things that makes recovery in Brattleboro really special is that it is a very small place and you can move here from some other part of the world and find a community that really cares for you," he said. "And that community of care is part of what holds people up. And I think the other thing that holds people up and keeps them in recovery is funding organizations that do this work."

Rikki Risatti of Brattleboro suggested the group look at hoarding as it is an "addiction pattern."

Earlier in the meeting, Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition Director Cassandra Holloway said vaping is becoming an "epidemic" for teens. Wessel said the issue is on his radar.

"There's quite a few people who share my concerns with young people vaping and marketing to young people," he said.

In other business:

— The board approved the renewal of liquor licenses for businesses in town except for Brattleboro Country Club, McNeill's Brewery and Cooper's Coop. All three will be asked to send representatives to an upcoming meeting.

The country club had its first offense of selling alcohol to an underage person. McNeill's had issues with its fire sprinkler system. And Wessel had questions about what kind of license Cooper's wanted.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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