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As overdose deaths rise, organizations focus on building connections to save lives

overdose deaths
Posted at 1:03 PM, Dec 31, 2021

JOHNSON, Vt. — As stark and isolating as a rural winter can feel, similarly, the pandemic has been a harsh two years for people living with addiction.

"We are seeing more and more people struggle with their recovery," said Peter Espenshade of Recovery Vermont.

He has seen the human toll of the dire statistics plaguing his community and the rest of the country. From March 2020 to March 2021, Vermont saw 211 drug overdose deaths, the largest percentage increase of any state at 85%. Nationally, overdose deaths increased 35%.

However, what this time of isolation and lost connections has done is emphasize the need for the type of recovery their team and others have been working to perfect.

"Once we got away from saying, 'We need to get you off this substance,' and once we started pairing that sobriety with real connections to a meaningful life, we've seen great success in recovery," said Espenshade.

Just as people rely on their neighbors to get through hard winters, Recovery Vermont is helping to build a village around people living with addiction starting with recovery coaches strategically placed in emergency departments and centers in every county.

It’s a system that the state government has bought into and is showing results, based on reconnecting people to the life they want to lead.

"A recovery coach will work with an individual, find out what really cooks for them, what really interests them, and then set up this suite of, of services of resources or direction for them. And that's the way we see people recover," he said.

And if it takes a village of support to help someone into recovery, one family is trying to turn the financially struggling rural town of Johnson, hit hard by the opioid crisis, into an entire recovery-focused community.

"Our daughter, Jenna, was 26 when we lost her to an overdose, which really just through our family and our community and turmoil. Greg and I decided that we wanted to build something to help other people and their family struggling with this," said Dawn Tatro.

After the immense tragedy, Dawn and Greg Tatro channeled their hurt into creating solutions to the same issue that took their daughter Jenna from them, fixing the flaws in the system they believe could have saved her life, calling their organization Jenna's Promise. They have no prior professional experience in treatment, just the love of their daughter.

"It just happened that the price of the church was the same as that price is Jenna's life insurance policy. So, that's why we call it Jenna's house because it really is her house. She bought this house and I can't think of a better way or something that she would be more happy with," said Dawn.

At the center is Jenna’s House is a church-turned recovery center. There’s a counselor based here, a nurse practitioner, a large space where all kinds of meetings happen daily, there’s a family program for parents in recovery that also offers babysitting, a kitchen, even a gym.

Outside Jenna’s house, the Tatro’s are buying up abandoned storefronts and turning them into housing and employment opportunities, including a roastery and cafe where people will be guaranteed jobs. The goal is to live, work and heal in the same vicinity to make the recovery journey as easy and attainable as possible.

"It will bring life into town. A lot of people haven't wanted to invest in Johnson because we're kind of in-between everything, you know," said Greg, "but we're, we're investing because we live here."

Over the one year, they’ve been open. They’ve had an 80% success rate of people staying in recovery. Leaders from across the state and country have looked at Jenna’s Promise as a model that could help people and rural communities recover.

"We now know it's actually a real rural crisis. And so, if we can take a model like that of taking these rural communities that are suffering anyways, that are seeing their shops boarded up and no employment opportunities and use it as kind of a win-win, why not?" said Espenshade.

Even as COVID-19 has severed connections in so many ways, he believes the will of neighbors to help each other up through the darker seasons will continue to fuel the progress being made in recovery

"We finally come up with a theory of change, which is connection, one that's evidence-based, one that we know works. And another huge wall has been put up for us through COVID. but what are we going to do? Give up? No, we're going to keep hammering on this proven path," said Espenshade.