Editor’s note: This is the first article of a four-part series exploring the four initiatives the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative has partnered with to combat the isolation, disconnection and lack of self-worth – felt by many residents across the county – by improving health. 

NORWAY — The Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative, better known as WMARI, was originally formed in summer 2015 as the Western Maine Addiction Task Force to combat the growing and deadly heroin epidemic in Oxford County.

In 2016, the task force changed its name to WMARI to better reflect the goals of the group, which focus on recovery and education. WMARI is comprised of nonprofits, law enforcement, local and state officials, counseling agencies and concerned residents. Members work to address language used regarding substance use disorder (which is the medical term now used, not addiction) and recovery, reducing barriers to entering recovery, getting people in recovery and educating the community and students about substance use prevention.

Project Save ME

Through funding from Maine Health Access Foundation’s (MeHAF) Healthy Community grant, the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative (OCWC) helps WMARI with Project Save ME, which coincides with the upcoming recovery coaches training. Project Save ME allows those in active use to show up to any police station or Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway or Rumford Hospital and ask for help. They can turn in their drugs and/or paraphernalia without being arrested and are paired with a recovery coach who will connect the individual to resources and advocate for that person during his or her recovery.

Stipulations include people with active warrants need to address those first and those with a history of violent crimes may not be able to enroll in the program. Taylor Kemp, of Healthy Oxford Hills and OCWC, noted that these two populations – law enforcement and those in active drug use – historically have not trusted the other. But the tide is turning in Oxford County, thanks to WMARI and Project Save ME.

“Engaging all of the law enforcement agencies in the county, helping to educate both populations (law enforcement and people in active use) about the other, has been an added benefit for everyone in Oxford County,” Kemp said.

Recovery coaches

This is the second round of recovery coach training WMARI has put on in conjunction with the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery. The groups define a recovery coach as “a peer who has direct experience with alcohol and/or drug addiction recovery, and who completes training to provide an array of services.” Recovery coaches meet with people to help strengthen their recovery by connecting them to community resources to also “improve their quality of life in many areas.”

The free, 30-hour training is scheduled over two weekends in April. It will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 1, Sunday, April 2, Friday, April 7, Saturday April 8, and Sunday, April 9, at the Holy Savior Church at 126 Main Ave. in Rumford. Lunch is provided.

The Oxford County Sheriff’s Department, the Paris Police Department and the Holy Savior Church all made donations so the training could remain free to those wishing to become recovery coaches, Kemp said.

“There is a lot of people in that area that want to be in Project Save ME,” Kemp said about the River Valley. “We thought if we put it in Rumford, it would reduce barriers of people becoming recovery coaches in that area.”

Last year, 12 recovery coaches graduated from the program. But not many stuck with their important role of helping people through their recovery.

“We have three active recovery coaches still so there is a big gap,” Kemp said. “Once we have more recovery coaches, we can really push the word out about Project Save ME.”

Recovery coaches have helped reform perception surrounding law enforcement and those with substance use disorder.

“This also has served to help change the public perception of law enforcement, as well as law enforcement’s perception towards those with substance use disorder, either actively using or in recovery,” according to Kemp.

Anyone interested in becoming a recovery coach can contact Kemp for an application at 739-6222 or taylor@healthyoxfordhills.org.

Training

One of the three remaining recovery coaches is Jessica Abbott, program coordinator and office manager for Healthy Oxford Hills. During her training last year, she participated in lots of role playing, discovered resources in the area, learned best approaches for someone not yet in recovery and watched “Anonymous People,” which is a feature documentary about the millions of Americans in long-term recovery from substance use disorder for alcohol or other drugs.

“We learned kind of how to approach someone that’s seeking recovery and may not be quite there yet,” Abbott said. “[We learned] how to pick up clues on whether it’s coming from them or family or friends … forcing them to.”

She noted relapse is higher when people enter recovery not by their own volition.

Abbott has been physically there as a recovery coach for four people (showing up to a hospital or police department) and has also been on the phone with others trying to get them into recovery.

“Actually one of the people that I was called for was someone that I knew but we were both OK with each other so it worked out,” she said. “And being such a small community, it’s going to happen from time to time.”

When it comes to getting people into recovery, time is of the essence.

“The door just opens for a little bit where people are ready to start recovery,” said Brendan Schauffler, the network facilitator for the Wellness Collaborative. “That door could be shut for a while.”

“Really catching when them when they have all that motivation is very important,” Owens said. “It could be they happened to have the transportation right then.”

“Or they wake up feeling great,” Schauffler added.

“There are so many factors that play into that,” Owens said.

Abbott said she wanted to become a recovery coach to help people.

“So far my experiences have all been positive. With the staff at the hospitals, it has been really awesome. They have been really accepting of us being there with the recovery and it seems like they’re just very supportive of the person that’s asking for help, as well as our program,” she said. “[Hospital employees] actually started calling us directly when they have someone that they want help with.”

Cultural competence

Cultural competence – which is about understanding different cultural variables – in the recovery sense focuses on education and shifting language, according to Kemp.

“Instead of [saying] someone’s an addict, someone’s in active use. Addiction is no longer the active term, [it’s] substance abuse disorder,” Kemp said. “[We’re] treating it like it is a disease because it is. It is not a moral issue.”

Using medical terms will help reinforce that substance use disorder is a disease like any other health issue, she added.

Schauffler said OCWC was interested in working with WMARI to work on the isolation, disconnection and not feeling valued issues that were previously identified as major issues for those living in Oxford County. These issues also translate to those with substance use disorder.

“There is a lot in working on stigma and I think about WAMARI’s work with starting to change some of the language – specifically in schools – change from saying, … ‘junkie,’ ‘druggie,’ ‘addict,’” he said. “Those things just remind people that … ‘I’m not worth it.’”

“A lot of people in WAMARI have family members or loved ones who are in active use, in recovery or died from an overdose and they have found their community in a way they can give back and that helps them really feel connected,” Kemp added.

Recovery rally

After the success of last September’s Recovery Rally – where more than 100 people walked from Norway and Paris and people were bused in from the River Valley and Fryeburg – WMARI is planning a second rally for this coming September, which is Recovery Awareness Month.

It took 700 hours of planning for the event, which included the walk spanning two towns, a family friendly barbecue and guest speakers. The planning time included meetings, price checking, securing donations, talking with town officials, coloring rally signs and taking home work to pull off a successful rally.

“I felt as a participant that day the reaction [was] amazingly supportive of everyone everywhere,” Schauffler said.

This included people in their cars, people on the street and those in the store fronts.

“People would stop what they were doing so they could watch us marching through, they would listen to what we were chanting,” Kemp said. “It felt like it went a long way towards not only building awareness, it is eroding that stigma because it is a huge barrier from people getting the help they need. They feel the judgment from society.”

The rally was held on a Saturday and the following Monday, two people contacted Project Save ME for help. One was the sister of a woman who had attended the rally, Abbott said.

“The impact of more widespread awareness would mean more people entering into treatment and recovery in their own community, as well as there being a reduction of stigma, thus creating a recovery-ready community,” according to Kemp.

She is leaving Healthy Oxford Hills and the Wellness Collaborative next month and is in the process of putting together a tool kit for others looking to host their own recovery rally.

The future

WMARI and Project Save ME are currently working on marketing and building visibility, building a website and already set up an active email account for people to contact, info@projectsaveme.org. There is a subcommittee working on the website and at the next meeting in April, members will decide on what the website needs, changes to be made, and important content. The goal is to roll the website out to the public by mid-April.

WMARI meets the first Wednesday of each month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Crosstone Conference Center, which is part of the Mollyockett Motel, at 1132 S. Main St. in Woodstock. All are welcome and encouraged to attend the meetings.

For more information, email info@projectsaveme.org or join the WMARI Facebook group by visiting Facebook and searching for “Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative.”

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What is the Wellness Collaborative?

The Oxford County Wellness Collaborative (OCWC) is one of 11 Maine communities selected to implement projects in the Maine Health Access Foundation’s (MeHAF) Healthy Community grant initiative. MeHAF seeks to improve health and promote collaborative, locally led efforts that can help transform communities to enable people to live healthier lives.

The Wellness Collaborative previously received MeHAF grants to pull together people across the county to identify priority health issues that the community would like to address, and to create a plan to address those health issues. The process led to a large group gathering where community members from all walks of life talked about the challenges at the root of the county not being as healthy as they would like.

The root cause unanimously chosen as a place to start to make change, was isolation, disconnection, and not feeling valued. Put another way, too many people in Oxford County aren’t connected with the people and resources that they need, and don’t have a sense of their worth. A series of Community Health Needs Assessment forums followed, where the priority health issues of obesity and substance use disorder were named.

Current MeHAF funding supports the work of four partners chosen by OCWC members to address the chosen health issues: the Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative, 5210 Let’s Go! Oxford County, Alan Day Community Garden, and the Community Safety Workgroup’s subcommittee on Adverse Childhood Experiences & Resilience.