Project CARE provides hope through collaboration

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BRATTLEBORO — The effectiveness of Project CARE, or Community Approach to Recovery Engagement, might not be visible to those who are not on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.

"The successes aren't promoted," Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald told the Select Board during a meeting last week. "Everybody walks downtown and they see a lot of things that disturb them. They see a lot of things that are negative. But I'm here to tell you there are a lot of success stories coming out of this. The reason people don't hear about them or see them is because they're no longer downtown."

Project CARE began in Brattleboro about 18 to 20 months ago as a way to minimize the impact of the opioid crisis and number of overdose deaths. The program was modeled off one created in a Massachusetts community.

The goal always was to work with other organizations.

"We ended up with eight representations from various organizations that volunteered to come to Project CARE meetings and do certain activities with us," Fitzgerald said. "To this day, these individuals have stuck with us and they're still volunteering their time.

"Words can't describe how much I appreciate their employers letting them come to Project CARE and then various activities all within the workweek. It just speaks volumes about how much they care for the community."

Lt. Adam Petlock, program coordinator, said officers received training and Narcan, a drug used to counteract overdoses. Officers also talked with members of the community who are in recovery from substance use disorder.

"The key piece is we want to improve access to treatment because the people who are in treatment are not people who are committing crime, they are not dying," Petlock said, noting that the police department has contacts within in-house treatment facilities and medical-assisted treatment programs. "So when officers are trying to get someone into treatment, we have direct resources rather than talking with people in different roles at these different places."

Volunteers have been given gas money to drive willing individuals to treatment centers. Last summer, United Way donated $2,000 for that purpose.

Petlock expressed concern about a lack of options for housing specifically designed for individuals in recovery. And he described transportation as a barrier.

"The treatment centers all have availability and if they don't, we have the contacts to get people in there quickly," he said. "What we don't have is rides to get them there. Our volunteers are maxed out. They are using their own vehicles, which are breaking down just trying to get people to treatment."

Suzie Walker, executive director of Turning Point, said her organization does not "try to suggest anything or impose any modality of recovery."

"We simply meet people where they are, human to human, and give them the message of hope," she said. "Because when they meet people who have achieved recovery, they know it's possible."

Turning Point's center at 39 Elm St. serves as a safe gathering space for individuals beginning or strengthening their recovery.

Walker said Project CARE team members go out in the community, build relationships and see whether people are ready for treatment.

"If they're content where they're at and what they're doing, we can make sure they're safe," she said. "We can make sure they have Narcan. We can make sure they know about safe needle use and where the resources are in town."

The group also tries to figure out how to solve an issue that might be keeping someone from treatment or help. Lack of insurance was one example.

Walker said some people have trouble "opening up" because they have experienced trauma in their lives or feel hesitant about giving recovery a try.

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"And so sometimes, you might go out six or eight or 10 times," she said. "And after a certain point, they realize, 'Hey, this person is remembering my name, they're asking about that thing we talked about last week, they're treating me with dignity and compassion. This person really cares.'"

Walker said the program has resulted in "amazing success stories."

Jedediah Popp, a member of the Project CARE Outreach Committee, wondered if the "hell" he went through in eight years could have been reduced to three years if the program had been around when he was first getting into recovery for heroin addiction. He now follows up with individuals who have overdosed and points them to resources.

"It's very valuable to me and I know it's valuable to them," he said. "I see these little, tiny successes."

Popp said those small successes will build upon each other.

"I truly feel the community will be a better place but we really do need certain supports to make that happen, to help these people get to a place and help them find their own turning point and essentially their own recovery," he added.

Justin Johnston, a recovery coach at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital who is in recovery from opioid addiction, said peer support brings "acceptance, validation, empathy and support that a lot of time, we just don't feel anywhere else."

"The hope that people see from other people in recovery, knowing people do get better, it's really inspiring," he said. "It's encouraging."

Select Board member Daniel Quipp, also in recovery, said he knows it takes a lot of time for people to get to a place where they look for help.

"How do you communicate to people they are loved and their community cares for them?" he asked.

"Sometimes, it means something as simple as, 'Hey, we're here and available,' and sometimes it means a lengthy conversation with Justin or Jed," said Petlock.

Walker said "a lot of listening" is involved.

"We really let the person lead the way," she said.

Select Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel noted the program involves case-by-case "sculpting" and questioned whether funding would help.

"It's that time investment that really strikes me as really weighing you down and limiting the cases in this program even if it was expanded," he said.

Chief Fitzgerald promoted an upcoming event where more can be learned: "Faces of Recovery" will be shown at Brooks Memorial Library at 7 p.m. Aug. 29. Individuals in the film will answer questions afterwards.

"I think that's very informative for the public and I hope everyone attends because there's going to be a lot of knowledge there," said Fitzgerald.

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


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