BUCKHANNON — Ending the stigma for people in recovery will help more people fight the battle of substance abuse addiction.
The first Hope and Help Assembly, an all-day celebration at Jawbone Park, brought together those in active recovery, public officials and organizations working to help those in recovery on Saturday.
The event was sponsored by the City of Buckhannon, Opportunity House and Region 4 Project SUCCESS grant.
Matt Kerner has been in active recovery for over 10 years.
“What recovery has done for me is allowed me to be somebody who is no longer here sleeping on park benches in Buckhannon,” he said. “Today, I am the executive director of Opportunity House. We are a recovery community organization, a peer-run social model that provides recovery support services to people in our community and to about 25 people that we provide residential services to.
“Our goal here today and I’m glad to see everyone who is here from different organizations — from different recovery modalities — is we want to celebrate our similarities and at the same time recognize our diversities. We recognize there are multiple pathways to recovery and what we do isn’t necessarily the right way. For me personally, it is what worked for me but it may not work for other people.
“If you got clean some other way, awesome. We are glad it is working for you and we hope it keeps working for you.
“One of the other things we want to accomplish today is to help start breaking the stigma of addiction. Stigma is probably our biggest barrier to having treatment and recovery services because recovery is a shame-based disease. We don’t get the funding resources other diseases would get. Last year, there were over 20 million people identified in this country as needing treatment and only about 3 million got it primarily because there were not enough beds available.
“Stigma affects our systems of care through funding shortages that create treatment protocols that are not adequate.
“We see people go to detox and depending on the facility, it might be a five, seven or 10-day stay. Then we throw them out, tell them not to drink and wish them the best.
“We don’t do that with other diseases,” he said. “We predetermine treatment stays instead of basing those stays on where the patient is at that time. Cancer patients go back for six-month or annual check-ups. We hand someone a little medallion and them goodbye and to go to meetings. We don’t do any follow-up to make sure their recovery is still in place.
“We want to address stigma, we want to celebrate the multiple pathways to recovery and we want to have a good time,” he said.
“I’m really grateful to the people who have come out to speak today because stigma prevents that, especially in this environment,” he said. “A lot of us are OK with speaking in church basements but we don’t want to speak out in public. Today is going to give us an opportunity to recover in public.”
“Hopefully, if enough people hear us tell our stories, they will be emboldened to tell their stories,” he said. “When we don’t, we let people die.”
Mayor David McCauley said, “This wouldn’t have happened today without Matt Kerner. We started talking about changing the dialogue in our community with hope that it would take root not just in the Buckhannon-Upshur Community but spread out to other places. I am here to tell you we are absolutely making a difference in moving the dial and there is nobody that we can think more for getting our wheels in the rut than we owe Matt Kerner for his contributions.”
“This experience where we develop this compassion, kindness and affinity for those in recovery, I think it’s too often the case that when folks invariably fall off that wagon, we say, ‘look, we gave you that extra chance and that’s it.’’
“We have to as a society, and particularly in our community, be prepared to commit to second, third, fourth and fifth chances,” he said. “We can’t give up on people. We just can’t do it.
“We cannot continue to wait on federal or state governments to address our drug crisis,” he said. “We have to do this beginning at the local level.
“In February, the City of Buckhannon launched the HOPE project, a holistic community supported approach to assisting addicts in their recovery and reintroducing them as contributing members of our society by assuring their addicts’ health needs are met and they sense there are bonafide opportunities in turning their lives around, they have a place to call home and there are employers willing to take a chance on employing them.”
HOPE stands for health, opportunities, place and employment, according to the mayor.
“We will have meaningful dialogue and commitment from area government and employers to create genuine hope for those recovering,” he said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Aloi, a long-time attorney, began his career from the other side of the bench in Marion County.
“I was first elected as a judge over six years ago and when I was sitting on the bench, it didn’t take long for me to realize how much suffering was taking place right before my eyes,” he said.
“It also didn’t take long to realize that I really wasn’t responding to that suffering in a very effective way. It broke my heart.”
Aloi said, “I wanted to do my job to make a difference - to protect the community but also to protect those people who were in front of me.”
Aloi said he was honored to start the first drug court in Marion County while he was a circuit judge there and said he believes in the drug court program.
“I think drug courts help on the front end. If people need help, we get them in there and they get the treatment they need. If they do it successfully, than we can give them an opportunity to say ‘I can change my life.’
“That is good for all of us because if we have someone who has hope, if we have someone who has changed than our community is safer, it’s better and it’s good for them. I think we all benefit for them.”
Aloi said convicted felons can’t find employment, housing or benefits they need.
“That is just wrong,” he said encouraging people to support second-chance legislation.
“The most desperate person in the world is someone who has no hope,” he said. “If we insist on creating a society that systematically takes away hope from people then we have made a whole community less safe for us. That’s not a good thing.”
Aloi said he believes “a community truly is defined by how we take care of who suffer most.”
“Are we truly a nation that values spiritual notions? If we say hope is for everywhere except the courts, that forgiveness is everywhere except the courts, that a chance to change is for everywhere except the courts, no….if we truly are those people who believe in a higher power then forgiveness does have a place when people have slipped.”
“It’s before me every day,” he said. “How can we respond to this in an effective way? How can we do this so that when it is over, a life is changed and can be better for the community? I think when we do that, it inspires all of us.”
Many speakers who are in active recovery spoke throughout the event.
Jim Wilson is a drug counselor with the 26th Judicial Circuit and said he is active in 12-step recovery and is a ministry leader for Celebrate Recovery.
He also said there is no one way for someone to recover.
“We are all on this walk together,” he said. “Being a part of Celebrate Recovery has done nothing but take my recovery places I would never have been able to go before.”
Wilson has also been a part of the establishment of Gatehouse, a level 4 non-medical long-term residential treatment program in Elkins.
Citing his own history of addiction and recovery, Wilson said, “For me, short-term treatment was just not enough.”
He said that addiction is a progressive disease and there is also a progressive recovery from addiction.
“Recovery is the foundation of whom I am and what I do so consequently everything outside of me becomes a manifestation of that in one way, shape, form or another,” he said.
Paula Jean Swearengin,who plans to run against U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., also attended HAHA.
One of the side effects of the poverty in West Virginia is addiction so people can forget the world’s problems, according to Swearengin.
“I’m thankful for Matthew Kerner and Opportunity House for offering real treatment programs and giving people the care they need,” she said.