I was disheartened to read about the stigma and backlash from some community members over the outdoor NaloxBox pilot project in Bloomsburg Town Park. Working in this field, I have heard the old rhetoric many times before. However, we must acknowledge there is an ongoing crisis taking place in our community.

Our team works to reckon with this crisis and respond accordingly.

United in Recovery is a community-based program under the Susquehanna Valley United Way. We fight to advance progressive public health initiatives and partner with organizations and stakeholders to promote policies and effective treatment that support individuals in active addiction. We offer overdose prevention education, work to reduce harm around substance use disorder, support and empower the recovery community, and provide stigma reduction and education on substance use disorder.

We break down access barriers so that every person has the education and tools they need to help a friend, loved one, or another human being in a crisis.

The opioid epidemic took us by waves in the 1990s and 2000s and evolved into a monstrous overdose epidemic. This nation has seen unprecedented overdose deaths in the past few years. A perfect storm of a tainted drug supply that includes fentanyl and xylazine, the trauma and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, archaic treatment policies, harmful policies, and stigma are creating damage, and we are losing lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Pennsylvania is the third highest state in the nation in overdose deaths, and we lose 14 Pennsylvanians daily. In 2020 alone, we lost 5,168 lives to opioid overdose.

While the overdose statistics are devastating, there is hope. In Pennsylvania, there are more than 800,000 individuals living a life in recovery. Some of us stay silent. Some of us are loud and proud. Most of us are living successful and fulfilling lives. People in active addiction can, do, and will recover. A recent study published by the CDC and the National Institute on Drug Abuse found 3 out of 4 people who experience addiction eventually recover. I find beauty in that. I also find beauty in someone carrying naloxone. You never know when you may meet someone in a crisis, and you can be the one to save that person’s life. You can be the first responder.

There is an antidote available that is easily accessible at absolutely no cost to our communities.

United in Recovery has never and will never use tax dollars or United Way donations to fund our naloxone program. We receive naloxone through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s (PCCD) Naloxone for First Responders Program. This program allows for Central Coordinating Entities (CCEs), community-based organizations, first responders, and harm reduction organizations to access naloxone in bulk and at no cost.

Launched in 2017, PCCD’s Naloxone for First Responders Program (NFRP) provides and distributes free kits containing two 4mg intranasal naloxone doses to organizations and individuals who may encounter someone experiencing an overdose. Together with the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), PCCD utilizes federal State Opioid Response (SOR) funds to continue the Naloxone for First Responders Program (NFRP). SOR funds have made naloxone readily and easily available to PCCD and, in turn, to community-based organizations and programs such as United in Recovery. We then distribute it to community members and other organizations and facilities.

According to the PCCD, through the NFRP since 2017, Centralized Coordinating Entities (CCEs) distributed 214,514 kits (429,028 doses) to organizations and individuals who may encounter someone experiencing an overdose and an additional 265,308 kits of naloxone directly to organizations serving high-need communities.

More than 22,815 overdose reversals were reported using state-purchased naloxone.

That is 22,815 lives saved. 22,815 Pennsylvanians with friends, families, sisters, partners, brothers, and children. They are individuals from all walks of life, every economic and social class, and every community. They are you, and they are me.

In our stigma reduction work, I have always believed that education and empathy are key to understanding another person’s journey. Questions I ask myself daily are “how do we teach empathy? How can we promote kindness?” I ask you. Why don’t we want better for our neighbors, loved ones, and friends? If we can save someone’s life in minutes with a quick, accessible, and easy-to-use nasal spray, why wouldn’t we want to give them that chance?”

It’s easy to automatically conjure up the most drastic stereotypes of individuals in active addiction. What is not easy to understand is that individuals who may experience an overdose are any one of us. Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. Older adults may be prescribed opiate medication, and they need access to naloxone in the event of an emergency. Teens may experiment and unknowingly ingest fentanyl-laced substances. The stereotypical intravenous drug user may need naloxone — and yes, they deserve love and compassion, just like every one of us. We are all human beings worthy of love, compassion, and respect. Let’s start showing it to one another.

Have hope. Save lives. Carry naloxone.

Olivia Oden is the director of United in Recovery for the Susquehanna Valley United Way.

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