These recovering drug addicts in Virginia are working to help others through “Project Recover”


CHESTERFIELD, Va. (AP) — Wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the word “PEER,” Joy Bogese approaches those struggling with drug addiction the same way a teacher would approach a reluctant student — gently, calmly and armed of experience in a subject that blocked each of them.

Bogese, a recovering heroin addict, breaks the ice by telling them a bit about herself.

“I was homeless, I did time in prison. I remember thinking there was no hope. I will always be a junkie,” she told a homeless -shelter by standing next to a uniformed policeman. “I did it and you can too,” she adds quickly.

Bogese is one of four peer recovery specialists working in central Virginia this year as part of “Project Recover.” Specialists are integrated with ambulance crews and police officers so they can offer advice and resources to victims during one of the most difficult times of their lives – immediately following an overdose.

The program began after Courtney Nunnally, a recovering drug addict who founded a nonprofit to help people get into treatment, partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia. For its first year, the project received a $302,000 federal grant to hire peer recovery specialists who have turned their lives around after long battles with addiction. Supporters of the program are currently seeking funding for a second year.

Most of the time, Bogese and Nunnally are on patrol with the police in Richmond and Chesterfield. They respond to 911 overdose calls and also patrol areas around abandoned buildings, cheap motels and parking lots, looking for signs of addiction.

On a recent Monday, Bogese spots Adam Hall, a homeless man she first met two weeks earlier, in the parking lot of a closed mall. She and Chesterfield Patrol Officer Travis Adams show up again and ask how he is.

Hall, 49, tells him he was shaken recently after a young man who stayed at the same campsite he lives in died of a drug overdose.

“Have you thought about what we talked about? Bogese asks, reminding her of some treatment options she suggested when they first met.

“It’s not something I’m passionate about yet, but I’m really thinking about it,” Hall said.

Bogese says she respects his honesty and hands him a nasal spray of naloxone, a prescription drug used to treat opioid overdose emergencies.

“He has these ideas and these options that we talked about, and these seeds are planted,” she says as she walks away.

That day, Adams and Bogese were not called to the scene of any overdoses for several hours on patrol. But they know it probably won’t be long before they do. Like many communities across the country, Chesterfield County has struggled with the crisis of opioid addiction.

In 2021, police responded to 308 calls for overdoses of heroin, fentanyl, or a combination of the two; 77 of those calls were about fatal overdoses. So far this year, they have responded to 161 overdoses; 27 of them were fatal, Lt. Edward Pierpont said.

The use of peer recovery specialists gained popularity in the late 1990s, when the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration began funding grant programs specifically focused on support services for peer recovery.

During the opioid crisis of the past decade, peer recovery specialists have become even more common. In 2015, a Massachusetts police chief announced that opiate addicts who come to the police station for help would not be charged with a crime. The Facebook post of former Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello garnered national attention and led to the creation of the Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative, a non-profit organization that assists law enforcement order to create early diversion and other “no arrest” programs to reduce overdose deaths and expand access. to treatment.

Since its inception seven years ago, the initiative has grown into a national network of nearly 700 police departments in 34 states.

Some departments encourage people to report themselves to police stations, while others, like Project Recover, focus on drug awareness.

“The goal is to get people into a treatment program rather than stopping them to get out of the problem,” said Zoe Grover, executive director of PAARI.

In Berea, Ohio, a town of about 20,000 just outside of Cleveland, the police department created Safe Passages, a program that encourages people to walk through the front door of the police station . There they meet with an agent and then a peer support specialist who helps determine placement for drug rehabilitation or treatment services. The program also helps participants with issues that can often hinder their ability to get treatment, including transportation, insurance, and childcare.

From 2016 to 2020, about 150 people showed up at the police station and asked for help, said Sgt. Patrick Greenhill. Thirteen other police departments in the area also participated, providing services to hundreds more.

“People didn’t believe it at first – that they wouldn’t be arrested – but then people started asking us for help with their friends,” Greenhill said.

In Chesterfield, Adams says having Bogese with him on patrol sometimes alleviates the fear and distrust people struggling with addiction have of the police.

“It’s important for them to be able to see that she’s been through what they have,” he said.

Bogese grew up wanting to be a police officer and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice. But she struggled with alcohol and prescription drugs for two decades, then became addicted to heroin.

After nine months of escalating heroin use, Bogese was arrested, an event she says saved her life. During more than four years in prison, she trained to become a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist and started working for Project Recover in April. She’s been clean for seven years.

“I was so focused on myself before, and the emptiness of feeling, ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose?’” she said. “I (still) have struggles and challenges, but having that sense and purpose to help people gives me that sense of direction so I don’t feel lost.”

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