Over $1 million a year is being pumped into Wilkes and nearby counties to address substance abuse through grants awarded to Project Lazarus, said Fred Brason, president and CEO of the Moravian Falls-based nonprofit.
Speaking at the Wilkes State of Addiction Community Forum at the Stone Center in North Wilkesboro on Feb. 28, Brason said the grants funded efforts involving multiple organizations.
He emphasized the importance of a cooperative effort at the forum, which featured presentations by representatives of Wilkes Medical Center, the Wilkes Department of Social Services, Daymark Recovery Services, Vaya Health, Wilkes County Adult Probation and the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office.
Brason defined recovery from anything as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life and strive to reach their full potential.”
Project Lazarus was established in 2007, when drug overdose death rates in Wilkes County were among the highest in the nation. It is credited with dramatically decreasing Wilkes’ death rates in Wilkes with a public health model based on involving a broad community coalition and a belief that overdose deaths are preventable.
Project Lazarus has provided training and technical assistance to communities and clinicians to help prevent overdoses and opioid poisonings, establish substance use and addiction treatment and support and help meet needs of those living with pain.
The grants Brason referenced include $635,000 awarded this fall by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance for a program that helps people charged with drug offenses get work and with substance abuse. Wilkes was among 21 counties nationwide targeted with this. District Court Judge Robert Crumpton; Capt. Jason Whitley, Wilkes County Jail administrator; Anna Knapp from Wilkes County Adult Probation office, Christyn Grant from Daymark Recovery Services, Susan Bachmeier from Wake Forest Baptist Health, Brandon Call from Wilkes Health, and DSS are involved.
Project Lazarus received $1 million from U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration for 2019-22 for prevention and recovery efforts in Wilkes involving a consortium of the Wilkes Health Department, Mountain Health Solutions, ALFA, Wilkes Recovery Revolutions and Wilkes EMS for increasing access to treatment and recovery, HIV/HCV testing and treatment and other prevention and intervention efforts.
Other funds include three grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
• a $250,000/year peer to peer grant for 2018-21. This is for the Peer Guide program, in which people in recovery from substance use disorder help others with substance use disorder enter into and sustain recovery by meeting needs such as employment, housing, transportation, and other medical and legal needs;
• a $125,000/year Drug Free Communities grant for 2016-21 that funds school and community-based prevention for up to age 18, including youth education and empowerment, life skills training, boosting positive parent-child interactions and providing positive drug-free social activities for Wilkes youths;
• a $300,000/year Partnerships for Success grant for 2019-24 focused on alcohol consumption, vaping and tobacco use among people 9-20 in Wilkes, Alleghany, Ashe, Alexander and Catawba counties. Site coordinators for each of the counties are in training to help them with efforts to address underage drinking. This will include school-based activities, community awareness and enforcement.
Efforts in schools
Brason said efforts by Project Lazarus in the schools incorporate a resilience-based model.
“I can stand here all day long and tell a group of young people don’t do drugs and how well is that going to work? But if we can provide them the skills and the coping mechanisms about life issues, they can walk better and make the right decisions better, then we’ve changed them for a lifetime. That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Project Lazarus has student prevention teams in West Wilkes High School, Wilkes Early College High School and in Central, North and West Wilkes middle schools that meet monthly and all together once each spring at Camp Harrison at Herring Ridge in Boomer for fun and training.
These teams determine ways to communicate with their peers to discourage controlled substance use and abuse. Project Lazarus provides teachers a stipend to help facilitate this and the materials `for messaging within their schools.
Brason said Project Lazarus is providing funding for a partnership with the Wilkes Community Partnership for Children on Blockfest, in which parents are involved with their young children in activities where they learn about science and math. He said that for Project Lazarus, it incorporates the principle of preventing substance abuse by building stronger families.
Project Lazarus took a group of Wilkes youths and parents to Washington last year for an event that helped them see what youths are doing to address controlled substance issues elsewhere.
Peer Guide program
Brason spoke about the Peer Guide program, in which people recovering from addiction help others achieve recovery, including by connecting them with resources such as housing, utilities, food, clothing, legal services, employment/job training and more.
They work with other organizations, including Wilkes County Adult Probation, Wilkes Medical Center and others. The peer guides served 53 clients in fiscal 2018-19.
They must have 40 hours of state-approved peer specialist support training and 20 more hours of training to become certified, at least two years of personal recovery, a valid driver’s license, be organized and have engaging interviewing skills.
Brason said Project Lazarus partners with High Country Workforce Development to help clients secure employment.
He said it’s hard for people with any sort of criminal record to get a job. “They could have 20 years of sobriety, but because it’s on their record they can’t get a job. That has got to change. We’re working on bringing about those changes and getting people the second, third or fourth chance in life to help their situation.”
Brason said Project Lazarus spends significant funds on providing transportation, which he said is one of the biggest needs faced by Wilkes residents recovering from addiction.
Assistance also is provided with social connectedness, finding housing, enrollment in education (typically Wilkes Community College), gaining improved physical health and financial and emotional stability.
At Wilkes Medical Center
Susan Bachmeier, chief nursing officer at Wilkes Medical Center, said the hospital will start integrating the peer support specialist program this spring. Details of this are still being worked out.
Bachmeier said the hospital also participates in the Coalition On Physician Education in Substance Use Disorders, has bins for the public to dispose of unwanted and outdated medication and makes Naloxone available through its Care Connection Pharmacy.
She said better awareness of substance abuse issues is needed within the hospital and the entire health care community.
Bachmeier said an example is knowing how to correctly manage a patient with substance abuse disorder in the hospital with a painful condition. If a person with diabetes is injured in a car wreck, the patient’s diabetes will be addressed as well as injuries from the wreck treated, she added.
“It’s almost like we’re flying blind with substance use issues and we need to do better,” she said, adding that it’s largely a matter of funding.
She said it would be ideal to have a behavioral medicine provider make hospital rounds with the Wilkes Medical Center hospitalist because of the high percentage of patents with substance use issues.
Bachmeier said 40 people attended a “lunch and learn” session at the hospital in January with staff of Mountain Health Solutions in North Wilkesboro, which provides medically-supervised methodone and Suboxone treatment of opioid addiction.
“I learned a ton and I’ve been a nurse for 30 years and didn’t know these things and that’s a problem,” she said. “We want to do more of that and really target our providers in the emergency department, obstetrics and in-patient unit.
Bachmeier said tele-psychiatry consultations through Facetime will soon be available to evaluate patients.
Wilkes County Jail
Capt. Jason Whitley, Wilkes County Jail administrator, recalled responding to drug overdose death cases in 2007, when Wilkes ranked third in the nation in drug overdose deaths.
The sheriff’s office responded to 363 overdose calls with 17 deaths in 2015, 250 with 27 deaths in 2016, 143 with 16 deaths in 2017, 153 with 13 deaths in 2018 and 148 with six deaths so far in 2019. The sheriff’s office is awaiting autopsy reports for some of the deaths in 2019.
He said the sheriff’s office recently launched a website (rise4me.com) to provide a central place with resources for people being released from the Wilkes County Jail to help address the facility’s high recidivism rate. It includes resources for people with alcohol and drug problems. Inmates are handed a card with the website address when they are released from the Wilkes County Jail.
The jail recently purchased computer tablets for inmates with apps that inmates use to make phone calls and send messages that they pay for, said Whitley, adding that the tablets were funded with a grant. He said the tablets soon will have GED, anger management, domestic violence and addiction classes for inmates. Inmates will get points for completing the classes that they can “spend” to play games or watch movies on the tablets.
Whitley said Daymark Recovery Services, the primary behavioral healthcare provider in Wilkes, has been a huge help in providing addiction recovery classes for inmates to take as a condition for being out on pre-trial release.
Zach Shepherd, Vaya Health care management team supervisor for Wilkes and six other counties, said his team is currently serving 73 high risk people in Wilkes with substance abuse problems with intensive services.
Shepherd also mentioned the new Shirley B. Randleman Center, a regional behavioral health crisis stabilization and treatment facility on the first floor of the Synergy Recovery detox building at 118 Peace Street, North Wilkesboro. He said it will be a mental health and substance abuse care facility and also a designated involuntary commitment drop site so these patients won’t have to be taken to Wilkes Medical Center.
Using $1.4 million that Sen. Shirley Randleman of Wilkesboro helped secure from the legislature and other funds, it is being expanded from a 14-bed to a 16-bed facility to provide secure, residential care. Shepherd said it will include a recovery-oriented peer living room, where people dealing with addiction can drop in and talk to peers for help as needed.