Late in 2019, Henderson County was awarded a Community Linkages to Care Grant for a Post-Overdose Response Team (PORT).
Through this program, Certified Peer Support Specialists will work with county EMS and the two local emergency departments to follow-up within 72 hours with people who have experienced an overdose and/or been resuscitated by naloxone. The specialists will meet with the individual and any support person available to provide information about resources for care. They will also follow up with people who have recently been released from detention that are interested in receiving support when they return to the community.
The program was in the early development stages in March when it was forced to pause due to the North Carolina quarantine, and it wasn’t feasible to start the program under those conditions. “We can’t wait any longer to get this help to our community members who need it,” explained Jodi Grabowski, Behavioral Health System Coordinator for Henderson County. “We know that the conditions that lead to substance use and overdose — isolation, job loss, and other stressors — are being amplified by the pandemic. We’re confident we can provide this service while meeting COVID-19 safety guidelines.”
The grant required that the local department of public health contract with a local nonprofit experienced in working with vulnerable populations including people who may be experiencing homelessness, are justice-involved, and dealing with behavioral health challenges and substance misuse, and The Free Clinics (TFC) was identified as the contracted agency for the project.
The peer specialists will carry and distribute naloxone kits, at no cost by The Free Clinics, as well as other harm reduction information and materials.
“Peer support is based on mutuality and the understanding that we, too, have been there,” explained Virginia Frechette, Certified Peer Support Specialist for the PORT program. “As an overdose survivor, understanding that I was not alone, that someone cared enough to create a safe space in meeting me right where I was in all of my shame and anxiety was paramount of my willingness to walk in to treatment and recovery.”
Her teammate, Lexie Wilkins, concurs. “Meeting our peers right where they are, sharing my lived experience to help others overcome life’s challenges and barriers, and walking alongside them and supporting them… it lets them know that they’re not alone, and they can achieve whatever type of life that they want.”
The PORT program will launch in the same week as International Overdose Awareness Day, a global event held each year on Aug. 31 to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death. It also acknowledges the grief felt by families and friends remembering those who have died or had a permanent injury as a result of drug overdose.
In addition to their direct service work, the PORT specialists will gather data about the experiences of the people they serve that will inform efforts toward improving services and resources in Henderson County. The team will work closely with colleagues from TFC, which include two staff based at the detention center: a licensed therapist and a discharge navigator, a position created based on recommendations from the county’s recent task force focused on substance misuse.
TFC Executive Director Judith Long says of the new program, “The Free Clinics is honored to partner with the county on this exciting and life-changing project. At a community level, we have long recognized the devastation that substance use disorder can have on persons, families, and communities; the pandemic has dramatically heightened the need. This project is more critical now than ever. We look forward to the lives we can touch and save through the multiple partnerships and dynamic engagement of our two new PORT peer support specialists.”
For more information about the Post-Overdose Response Team, visit www.thefreeclinics.org or contact Virginia Frechette at 828-845-0441 or Lexie Wilkins at 828-845-0541.