As we have seen in news stories throughout the country, a class of drugs called opioids have wreaked havoc on countless lives, including right here in Porter County. In response to this overwhelming crisis and a desire to impact change, United Against Opioid Abuse was created. This statewide United Way initiative leverages AmeriCorps members, a national service program, to assess the opioid crisis on a local level. United Way of Porter County is one of ten United Ways in the program.
In 2016, 784 Hoosiers died of opioid related overdoses, which includes both legal prescription pain killers and illicit drugs like heroin. In Porter County alone, heroin-related deaths have seen an increase of 265% since 2008, and that number is only expected to rise. The impact of the opioid crisis reaches beyond statistics though. Children, family members and those suffering from addiction see this play out in their lives daily.
Dedicated to ending the trend, United Way of Porter County is collaborating with community partners to collect information to identify the current landscape. Cara Jones is the AmeriCorps member that is making the opioid initiative happen by diligently researching the impact of these addictive drugs on the county. Jones is engaging with the community to help find the most effective solutions to the problems created by the opioid crisis.
"We're starting with a landscape scan to find out what the problem looks like locally. By talking with different people to build a community narrative, we hope to create a really well-rounded package," explained Jones. "Do we see different populations impacted more than others? How will community members measure progress? What are the priorities we want to inform our actions? United Way of Porter County wants to use these kinds of questions to define what space we can fill in the crisis. We want to do our due diligence before acting. We want the full picture."
Doing their due diligence to form a comprehensive and effective program is important to the United Way. That is why Jones and others at the United Way of Porter County have been partnering with individuals at other organizations on the front lines of the epidemic, like Megan Johnston with Porter County PACT Recovery Connection.
"She is a fantastic, lovely person. We've been collaborating and working well together so far. We even partnered on two community conversations, at Respite House and the Porter County Jail. It's a great opportunity to partner in these conversations because we are able to take different aspects out of them. We touch base consistently and hope to do more work together going forward,” said Jones.
At Recovery Connection, individuals with addiction, as well as their families, can actively work on their recovery in a supportive, group environment. Transitioning out of treatment or jail can be very difficult, so Recovery Connection provides an array of services to help them remain sober and successful in their recovery.
Johnston started out as an intern for PACT and found her passion. She did so well that she was offered the program coordinator position. As the Community Liaison, she coordinates fundraising events, writes grants and coordinates group activities, such as peer monitoring and life-skills training. One of Johnston’s main goals is engaging other nonprofits and making the community more aware of what Recovery Connection does. And, that’s where United Way plays in.
"United Way of Porter County has always been a financial supporter of Recovery Connection, and we've received funding from them for past two grant cycles. I started working with Cara recently and we have been having community conversations to gain perspectives from people in the community, some who are addicted or impacted by opioids, and taking their perspective to find solutions for these problems," said Johnston.
Through her position at Recovery Connection, Megan has seen individuals persevere in improving their lives, whether they have an addiction or they love someone with an addiction. The outlook of being willing to change one’s approach is the aspect that most encourages Megan about Recovery Connection, PACT and other United Way supported programs. Staff and volunteers are encouraged to utilize fresh approaches and bring their talents and ideas to the programs.
Finding valuable input from the community conversations that Johnston and Jones have been a part of has been encouraging as well.
"The thing that stuck out most to me, which we heard repeated over and over from people who had tackled substance abuse issues themselves, is that they found that people who had gone through addiction themselves and understood their struggles were the most effective in helping. They feel like they can relate to them better," said Johnston.
As these community conversations continue, having partners like Johnston will enable United Way of Porter County to get a firmer grasp on the problem at hand.
"I'm looking forward to doing more community conversations with United Way. When we try to offer services, we don't always know if it is the best possible thing, if it is something the community needs most, but we are discovering those solutions," said Johnston.
You’re invited to be part of the conversation. United Way of Porter County next community conversation is March 15, 2018 at 6pm at United Way of Porter County, 951 Eastport Centre Dr., Valparaiso. To attend, RSVP to Cara Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 219.464.3583 x129.