An Approachable Van, An Approachable Team, All in the Name of Hope

An Approachable Van, An Approachable Team, All in the Name of Hope

By Steve Sears

The van still arrives for battle, but for a different type of battle.

The core staff of the vehicle.  From left, Morris County Sheriff’s Office Corporal Erica Valvano; Madine Despeine, director of Self-Help, Advocacy and Education for the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris; Ashley Reed, a Care Navigator for Family Promise of Morris County’s Navigating Hope Program; and Kelly LaBar, certified peer recovery specialist for the Center for Addiction Recovery, Education & Success (CARES)

Thomas Purdy visited the Hope One van when it was stationed on a frigid day outside Walmart in Riverdale. He had stopped to buy wiper blades and saw the Hope One van and approached it. “I am in a N.A. program – Narcotics Anonymous.” He then bluntly adds, “I’m a heroin addict. You’re always a heroin addict.”  

Purdy had heard of the NARCAN program but had never encountered the van nor its NARCAN training prior to this day. Kelly LaBar, a Peer Recovery Specialist for the Center for Addiction Recovery, Education & Success (CARES), had given him a lesson in how to use NARCAN, a nasal spray that aids in the prevention of opioid overdose. “They help everybody,” says Purdy of Hope One. “They help by saving lives. People come to an (NA) meeting high, you hear about it at every meeting that somebody has overdosed. People are dying left and right out there now. And it’s the Fentanyl.”

“I think that this has become much of my professional life,” says Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon of Hope One and the fight against drug addiction, “and my personal life, too. I’ve been around in the security and law enforcement business going on four decades, and I’ve seen changes occur.”

Gannon in the early 1980s was a Boonton police officer, and often arresting people for possession of heroin. Heroin at that time was 3% pure. Fast forward to 2019 and that percentage is now at 60 – 65% pure. “New Jersey is showing the purest, due to access to the seaports and the airports. But the real issue here affecting us is more than that. It’s prescription drugs and Fentanyl (opioids pain medication). Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin.”

Gannon and others have seen the spikes in usage and death due to opioid overdosing, and Gannon is aware that roughly 75% of those currently using heroin and fentanyl started out using prescription drugs with legitimate purpose. “It started with a broken bone or a broken tooth,” says Gannon, “and now it’s ending with a broken heart. I think many times people start with a medical purpose and then they end in a tragic way.”

Gannon, who had been a homicide detective for 17 years and also worked for the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force,

had never run for public office, but when he started campaigning, he knocked on over 9,000 Morris County doors, asking residents in many communities what they’re biggest concerns were. Drug addiction was near the top. “Everybody talked about opioids, whether it was a mom with a baby on her shoulder, or a grandmother or grandfather. They talked about opioids, how it affected their family, their friends, their colleagues.” In 2018, 3,118 New Jersey residents were killed or died as a result of drug overdose. “These are guys and gals ages 13 to 80 in Morris County. They have families, they have kids – some of them have grandkids! What are we doing about it?”

Gannon was elected and took office on January 2, 2017 and he sprang into further action, convening a team meeting with the Morris County Prosecutor’s office, the Chief’s of Police Association, the Morris County department of Human Services, addiction and mental health specialists, and police officers. All sat around a table as Gannon said, “Listen, if we have a blank piece of canvas, what can we do to curb this problem? What can we do that hasn’t been done before?”

The focus was the at-risk population, the people minus support: the homeless, and those with mental health and addiction issues. But here was the key. Rather than dragging people to what Gannon calls “brick and mortar operations”, he suggested bringing services to them instead.

Then came the van. “I had an old SWAT vehicle,” Gannon says with a smile, “it looks like Anthony’s Bread Truck, right? I was going to repurpose it and put it somewhere else, but then I said, ‘Let’s use this for Hope One.’ And we did. We took all the police markings off it, there’s no overhead lights on it, there’s no Sheriff’s star on it, there’s not even government license plates. The license plates read ‘Garden State – HOPE ONE’. We needed $15,000 to retro-fit the vehicle for wi-fi, so it could be comfortable, so it could be private, so the heat worked, and things like that – and comfortable to approach. We took $15,000 from drug forfeiture money; no money from the taxpayer. So, drug dealers are paying for a drug program.”

Hope One, and the qualified folks accompanying it, meet people where they are, geographically and clinically, doing it in a stigma-free manner. “We don’t judge people,” says Gannon. “A guy comes up to us, say he’s 57-years-old like me, and he’s got a long story. We don’t judge people. We say, ‘Hey, let’s have a cup of coffee, let’s have a bun, let’s talk about which services are available to you. Maybe we can help you.’ You can’t force it on anybody, people are only ready when they’re ready. But we start the conversation, we provide people with materials to get them on their way.” Hope One also will give out toiletry bags, fresh socks, coats, and more. Gannon and the team also have resources who are treatment providers who can aid the at-risk individual.

In addition to educational material on the truck, people were needed. They’re there, no matter where Hope One pulls up to a curb, table outside the van, a welcoming assortment of buns and smiles greeting folks who wander over.

First, a Sheriff’s officer, Erica Valvano, who Gannon coins the “Mother of Hope One.” “She is totally invested in it. How she does, what she does, I don’t know. I’m very grateful for her, because she makes it all happen.”

Valvano is a Corporal in the Sheriff’s Office. “As coordinator of the Hope One mobile outreach vehicle, I schedule locations, work with community partners and provide outreach in the community. I am also the project coordinator of our Hope One PAARI grant that the Morris County Sheriff’s Office received from the Bureau of Justice in October 2018.” She adds, “Working with the community has truly been a rewarding experience.”

In April 2019, Gannon will be starting Hope One PAARI (Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative). “It started out in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and about 45 states are involved right now. We’re going to train police officers in Morris County so that when they’re on patrol, and they see a person who’s in a bad way that’s addicted, they don’t have to wait for the Hope One truck. We can deploy specialists to the police department, free up the police officers and let them get back to their work, and we can deal with that person who has the addiction problem.”

Valvano echoes Gannon’s words about bringing services to the client, and she herself selects the spots the Hope One

Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon in the center. On left is Burlington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Mike Ditzel.  On right is Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Investigations Darren Anderson.  They visited Hope One in Netcong, Morris County, out of interest in starting their own Hope One program in Burlington County.

van visits. “We are out in the community offering services outside of retail stores throughout the county as well as reaching out to the at-risk community at soup kitchens. I select our locations based on recent overdose data from the Morris County Sheriff’s Trends and Analysis Team (MCSTAT). The Hope One calendar can be found at www.sheriff.morriscountynj.gov/community/hope-one/.

The Hope One benefit is also spreading to other spots of the Garden State. “There has been statewide interest in the Hope One program as well as most recently Delaware reached out for information,”” says Valvano. Hope One has launched in Newark, Monmouth County, Atlantic County and Cape May County. Other interested agencies include Passaic County, Burlington County and Bergen County.”

Madine Despeine, Director of Self Help, Advocacy and Education for the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris County, is also a fixture at Hope One. “As a mental health professional I provide a layer of comfort to individuals who come to the truck as well as offer mental health services to that individual.  I connect them to resources such as social groups, therapist, support groups, medication monitoring, case management, housing, etc. These are services many people don’t know where or how to access.”

The chief mental health challenge is treatment. “We know that most people who have a substance abuse issue also struggles with mental illness.   Many people don’t know where they are, how to get in and how to get there once an appointment is scheduled. Through the Mental Health Association, I can connect them to a case management program that can assist with that as well as linking them to other services.  The case manager helps with navigating through a system that can be intimidating and overwhelming for an individual especially if he or she is homeless, self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol, struggling with mental health issues, and feeling helpless.”

Despeine lauds the team she works with. “This is a unique team.  We all come from different backgrounds, but we come in contact with the same individuals in our daily work and offer another layer of service/help to him or her.  We can have a gentleman just released from the jail that comes to the truck. Kelly (LaBar) will work with someone in recovery but finds out he is struggling with loneliness and depression and will refer him to me.  I will then get him involved with some social groups, therapy, the warm line, etc. but he is also struggling financially. He will then go to Ashley (Reed) to see if he qualifies for food stamps and other benefits. We have to work collectively and build our community relationships in order to provide the highest level of services to everyone we help.  Sometimes we get parents who are struggling with trying to help their loved one get help but we realize they (the parents) would benefit from some support, therapy and a hug.”

“A phenomenal group to partner with,” says Gannon. “These are folks who are certified and know addiction from the inside out.”

LaBar knows the long, brutal road of addiction, and its path to recovery. “I was addicted to escaping reality. Drugs and alcohol were a way to do that for me. I am in long term recovery since January 26, 2003.” She recalls very vividly her past. “I didn’t know anyone that did what I did and got sober, which left me feeling hopeless. Recovery was not something people were so open about. What changed for me was finding a community of other people that were happy and free from drugs and alcohol. Having my daughter made me re-evaluate my choices, she saved my life! My family was supportive. I have found over the years that just putting drugs and alcohol down is not enough. I had to continue to try and be a better person and help people. Something that I discovered is a key element to my wellbeing is having a relationship with nature. I feel most connected while hiking or watching a sunrise or swimming in the ocean, or dancing in the rain. I recharge when I give myself moments to just be….I am happy to be open about my recovery both personally and professionally. When I get to help people on Hope One, I want to make sure no one feels the way I did when I was trying to get sober. I want them to know I will help them in whatever path they choose, and recovery is possible at any point. I still am in awe of the fact that I get to go out and help people every day.”

LaBar knows of no key first step to take, including admitting you have an issue. “I wish there was a one size fits all solution but getting better is just as individualized as the person. I think fostering a loving, accepting, non-judgmental model for people who are using, like all of us do at CARES, truly leads people to feel empowered in the direction of their lives. Kindness goes a long way.”

Reed represents Family Promise of Morris County, a non-profit agency serving those impacted by homelessness and poverty in Morris County through a continuum of services including outreach, shelter, and housing programs, also aids Hope One. “Family Promise is a proud partner in the Hope One project,” says Maria Fodali, LSW, Coordinator of Outreach Programs.  “Our agency has funded NARCAN kits and trainings, provides ongoing in-kind donation items, and travels with the Hope One Van weekly to offer community members benefits screenings and application assistance, resource navigation through services and resources in the community, and housing assistance. Our role is to address the additional needs on the van aside from addiction and mental health, as the needs of our Morris County community members can be broad and multifaceted.”  

Family Promise has also kicked off their own mobile van services as well. “From our work with Hope One, and the daily work we do at Our Promise, our Drop-In Center location, we received funding to launch our own mobile outreach vehicle in the spring of this year (2019) in partnership with Morris County Human Services – Navigating Hope!  Our van, that will travel often in tandem with the Hope One vehicle, will provide case management and a variety of services to low-income and homeless individuals. The van will target hard-to-reach communities and populations and is intended to fill traditional gaps in community service provision.”

Fodali agrees that, when a family member is addicted, the issue goes well beyond the addict. “Yes, absolutely.  Addiction is simply not an individual problem, it is a family challenge. Families often go through every avenue possible to get their loved ones help and to learn the services available for them.  We see family members of those suffering from addiction approach the van at shopping centers like Walmart in Boonton, unaware of the Hope One Program, and leave their shopping trip better educated on addiction and recovery, with training on how to administer NARCAN safely, accessible mental health services, and with resources for financial concerns and housing as appropriate.  The key to this program is a holistic approach – the whole team ensures that we are addressing challenges in all needed areas and prioritize basic needs, a harm reduction philosophy, so that recovery is not only achieved but also sustainable.”

As of this interview, Hope One since January 2017 has visited locations 239 times. “Since we’ve been out, we’ve had contact with over 6,245 people that came up to us and said, ‘Hey listen, I have a friend, colleague or family member who has a problem. Can I have some information so maybe I can slip it to them, and you can help them.’ Every 10 minutes somebody comes up to that truck and says, ‘Can you help me with something?’ I knew it would work,” says Gannon, “but I never thought it would work to the level it has worked.”

Gannon also states that over 1,600 people have been trained in the usage of NARCAN. “The kit, the mask, the gloves – we’re giving people second chances. Are we saving their life? For now. But we’re giving them second chances.”

Morris County Sheriff’s Office Corporal Erica Valvano, Hope One coordinator; Family Promise of Morris County Executive Director Joann Bjornson; and Family Promise of Morris County Trustee Daniel Umana.

Purdy now knows how to administer NARCAN should he see someone overdosing. “I’ve been a heroin addict since I was 15 years old; that’s the first time I put a needle in my arm. I’m 62 now.,  This (NARCAN) was not around when I was younger. There was nothing around.” Purdy’s son is a former heroin addict who has now been clean for seven years. Purdy understands what he went through. “Drugs were part of my culture. My kids can come to me about drugs. I couldn’t go to my parents; they’d wonder what was wrong with you, because it wasn’t part of their culture. But today it’s gotten out of hand. It really has.”

Purdy’s next step is always to put one foot in front of the other and continue on. He hasn’t done drugs or alcohol for years. “I don’t feel good where drugs are going in this country. It’s a pharmaceutical drug. When I was doing heroin, it was smuggled in.”

Purdy then looked at LaBar, then around inside the heated truck. “This is a fabulous job. they need more of these vans out there. They need more people trained in NARCAN. Maybe there’d be a lot less overdoses.”

Hope One has documented 32 lives have been saved. “So, it’s been wonderful, and I have to say, Morris County’s been great,” says an excited Gannon. “The Board of Chosen Freeholders have embraced this program – they get it, they’re talking to their constituents, I’ve spoken to people in the Assembly, in the Senate, in Congress, I’ve spoken to people across the board who are looking at this program and saying, “Wow. “It’s simple, it has No impact on the budget.”

For more information about Hope One and the groups that it works with, please visit www.sheriff.morriscountynj.gov/community/hope-one/.

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