CUMBERLAND — Volunteers with the Healing Allegany Street Team hope that their signature purple shirts soon come to be viewed by the community as beacons of hope and education.
Since they first hit the streets in April, the team of roughly 15 volunteers has met folks from Westernport to Cumberland, armed with small, colorful bags filled with two doses of naloxone nasal spray, plastic gloves, protective face covers and other implements that could save a life.
This week, they’re distributing the kits, offering training in the use of naloxone and more at their purple booth at the Allegany County Fair in the multi-purpose building.
In a recent interview, AHEC West Associate Director Melissa Clark said that they identified the need for the traveling outreach team while working through the process for the $1 million Rural Communities Opioid Response Program, or RCORP grant that funds the consortium. They realized there was “a definite need” for an overdose response program, or ORP, Clark said, to further their work in the community.
“It was really evident when we were writing the implementation grant that we needed it,” Clark said, and so became a state-authorized ORP. They were also fortunate to have all the resources they needed to form the street team, she said, through the nine-member entities of the consortium and the peer recovery specialists with whom they were already working.
Catie Brenneman, the project coordinator for Healing Allegany, said that since the team first went out on April 3 — to Easter picnics at CityReach Church and Living Waters Ministries, where they connected with 27 people — they’ve trained more than 260 people in administering naloxone and have distributed 520 doses of the overdose reversal drug. They also distribute Deterra bags, which neutralize drugs for safe disposal.
“We had no idea what to expect, so we decided to have no expectations,” Brenneman said. “We were really happy with 27.”
When they went to the farmers’ market soon thereafter for their next event, Brenneman said, 11 volunteers reached 43 people. They’ve had Cumberland Police officers present at their table at most events for drug take-backs, she said, and also work closely with other consortium partners like the Allegany County Health Department and the Maryland Rural Opioid Technical Assistance program.
They work with the health department, Brenneman said, to get quarterly maps that determine where overdoses are most highly concentrated in the county.
In addition to table events, team members also visit those hot spots equipped with kits and educational material. Area businesses and organizations can also request a visit from the team for naloxone training, peer recovery specialist and street team member Kristin Thomas said.
Thomas recalled when she realized what a strong need there was for the team’s work. On her first trip with another team member to visit folks over by the Blue Bridge, Thomas said, they were met with a tragic story.
“The people there ... expressed to us that they had just lost somebody a week earlier,” Thomas said. “They didn’t have naloxone, and they don’t have access to virtual trainings. That was when we realized ‘OK, we need to make sure to get that to them as regularly as possible.’ If we’d been there a week earlier, they wouldn’t have lost someone.”
Each opportunity to regularly connect with team members can make a significant difference for those who are struggling with active addiction when they meet, Brenneman said.
“It’s an opportunity to keep building rapport,” Brenneman said. “It’s getting to know that person and letting them get to know you. The more they see our faces on the street, the more we become trusted individuals.”
Thomas has been in recovery since March 2016. For individuals coping with substance use disorder, she said, seeing someone who has struggled the same way as them and came out better for it can be a powerful motivator.
“I was one of those people. So, I know that the idea that recovery is possible is so crucial,” Thomas said. “If we don’t see people recover, if we don’t see them getting their lives back ... it’s hard to see an idea of what that looks like when you actually recover. That’s a really hard stigma to break. Just showing them that it’s possible is a huge support.”