Sara DePasquale

Sara DePasquale

Efforts of The Health Foundation’s Community Opioid Prevention & Education (COPE) team were touted to a roomful of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members and senior administrators during a “Tar Heel Bus Tour” stop Friday at the Brushy Mountain Smokehouse & Creamery in North Wilkesboro.

In April, Wilkes County was one of 10 communities and counties chosen by UNC’s School of Government (SOG) to participate in the school’s Opioid Response Project. The project, which is coordinated by the school’s ncIMPACT initiative, aims to find common solutions that inform action plans for communities battling the opioid crisis.

The Wilkes COPE team has been studying the impact of opioid misuse in Wilkes County and how to best help people bounce back. The team includes representation from local law enforcement, the Wilkes County Health department, Wilkes Medical Center, Recovery Revolution and others in the recovery community, concerned citizens and others.

SOG associate professor Sara DePasquale, a member of the Wilkes multi-disciplinary team, explained that she brings to the group a relationship with state judicial officials and expertise in the area of child welfare services. She said the Wilkes team has been “really gracious and welcoming” to her.

DePasquale added, “Personally, it’s been very rewarding not just to meet this team but have the opportunity to work more collaboratively with my colleagues at the school.”

Heather Murphy, executive director of the foundation, told the audience, “It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of news about opioid abuse, especially when you hear the stats about Wilkes County. But even in communities just like Wilkes, we do have everything we need to solve even the most complex problems.”

The Health Foundation was awarded a grant from UNC to contract with a program coordinator for COPE and to receive technical assistance, coaching the team in the best practices and helping it figure out the right fit for the community. The overall two-year project is supported by $390,000 in statewide funding from BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina.

“When we come together through this (COPE) process, we get a bird’s-eye view of what is enabling our success and what is inhibiting our cause,” said Murphy. “Along the way, trust is developed and relationships begin to change, because we’re putting the client—the person who uses drugs, the person in recovery—at the center of this system, and we’re aligning this system to serve that person.”

Murphy said that the foundation is currently working on a project called “Verbatim Theater.” She said the team is going out into the community and interviewing people who have experienced substance use disorder. The interviews, once completed, will be compiled into a play that will hopefully spark conversation in the community about substance abuse.

The “Verbatim Theater” piece is being directed by Dr. Jim Brooks, language arts department chair at West Wilkes High School and a member of the National Teacher Hall of Fame.

Murphy indicated that the local COPE team may start many different programs addressing different pieces of the opioid issue. She said the team meets monthly to push forward on strategies, with work groups specifically addressing harm reduction, stigma reduction, resilience and access to services.

Devin Lyall, executive director of Recovery Revolution, recalled her own struggles with substance abuse, which began when she was prescribed opioids following a skiing accident as a teenager. After reaching her lowest point as an addict, Lyall said she received treatment in Asheville and employed a 12-step program to stay sober.

She said the COPE project and other local efforts to combat substance abuse “has really been a beautiful process, and there’s still so much more to come. Our overall mission (with Recovery Revolution) is to create a community where recovery is possible for all, through restoring hope, repairing lives and rebuilding community.”

George Blaylock of Daymark Recovery Services ended the program by explaining his role with Individual Placements and Supports, which helps find quick employment for recovering substance abusers.

Friday was the final day of the “Tar Heel Bus Tour.” It started on Wednesday and involved about 90 UNC associates who journeyed across the state to connect with and learn from the communities they serve. Three buses being driven simultaneously covered more than 1,000 miles across the state in three days.

Community partners who have joined the COPE initiative include the Wilkes County Health Department, the Wilkes Community Health Center (FQHC), Wake Forest Baptist Health-Wilkes Medical Center, FaithHealth NC, CareNet Counseling, local physicians, Project Lazarus, Recovery Revolution, Daymark Recovery Services, Wilkes County Schools, municipal governments, AIDS Leadership Foothills-Area Alliance, the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce, Wilkes Community College, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, Mountain Health Solutions Wilkesboro CTC, Wilkes Department of Social Services, local media outlets, Hospitality House of Boone, and the Wilkes Public Library.

Those wishing to join the North Wilkesboro-based health and wellness nonprofits program can contact Murphy at heather@healthywilkes.org or 336-838-1949.

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