Hampshire Hope: The ‘hope’a job can offer



For the Gazette
Published: 3/5/2021 3:54:32 PM

In August 2016, Huntington, West Virginia made headlines when it suffered 27 heroin overdoses in four hours.

Even in a state with the highest drug overdose death rate in the country, that day stood out as a catastrophe, becoming a kind of call to arms. Of the 27 overdoses, there was only one fatality, but community leaders realized something had to be done.

“The volcano just kind of erupted that day,” Ashley M. Shaw said. “We became known as the epicenter throughout the nation.”

Fast-forward to February 2021, when Shaw addressed two dozen people on a Hampshire HOPE virtual meeting for a decidedly more hopeful reason.

Shaw, director of the Creating Opportunity for Recovery Employment (CORE) program based at Marshall Health in southwestern West Virginia, was leading a session for members of the HOPE coalition about CORE, one of many initiatives launched in Huntington after that infamous day.

Among many ideas people in Huntington discussed were ways to increase protective factors for people in recovery from opioid addiction. One such factor, everyone agreed, is gainful employment.

“How do we work to create a ready workforce of people in recovery and how do we work with employers to find that labor?” Shaw and others wrestled with these essential questions in the context of their belief both that people in recovery benefit from being in the workforce and employers benefit from their presence on the job.

Hampshire HOPE coordinator J. Cherry Sullivan invited Shaw to present to this HOPE coalition meeting, which drew police officers, harm reduction specialists, staff with the Northampton Health Department and local social services, because she believes there are lessons to be gleaned from CORE.

The program provides education, builds skills and offers intensive, individualized support to help people in recovery enter (or re-enter) the workforce and maintain employment. CORE also works with employers to reduce stigma and help them better understand that people in recovery are assets even if they need certain support and accommodations.

“Our model is whole-person wellness,” Shaw said. “What does it take to get people employment-ready?”

‘Whole-person wellness’

CORE supports overall health and wellness because many factors get in the way of successful engagement in work for people with substance use disorders. Shaw noted that the majority of CORE participants are disproportionately affected by inequitable social determinants of health and poly-substance use, which creates barriers to finding and keeping a job. CORE focuses on conscious matching of employees to workplaces with cultures of sustainable, recovery-friendly employment.

Sullivan sees efforts to create an atmosphere supportive of people recovering from substance use disorders as very much relevant to the work of Hampshire HOPE, the countywide opioid prevention coalition based in the Northampton Health Department.

“Quality employment is a protective factor for people, whether they’re using substances right now or they’re in recovery,” she said.

Meaningful and productive employment improves self-esteem, and the ability to earn money to cover one’s basic needs is also a protective factor supporting recovery and a thriving life.

Among the people listening to Shaw at the Feb. 23 meeting was Teri Anderson, executive director of MassHire Franklin Hampshire Career Center.

According to Anderson, the individualized work of CORE caseworkers that Shaw described is similar to the services already provided by the career center serving Hampshire and Franklin counties and the North Quabbin region.

Because people dealing with substance use disorders often have additional needs that may require special attention, Anderson was part of a collaboration that applied for two federal grants last year with the goal of creating a program that would, as she put it, “take it to the next level.”

That effort, The Recovery to Employment Partnership, brought together the MassHire career center, Hampshire HOPE, the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and North Quabbin Region, peer recovery centers, substance use treatment providers and community social service organizations. The partnership aims to develop a network engaged in holistic, supportive strategies to help people overcome barriers to sustained recovery and employment.

While last year’s grant applications were unsuccessful, she remains committed to the goals of the partnership. And that’s what brought her to the HOPE meeting last week.

Anderson said many people who rely on MassHire services face significant barriers in job seeking, including transportation, affordable child care, digital literacy and access to technology.

“Those barriers are then exacerbated exponentially if you have substance use disorders,” she said. “Because on top of that, you have stigma and the challenges of being in recovery long term.”

She said the challenges are many, which is why solutions depend on the collaborative efforts of many organizations to meld employment services with peer recovery coaching and therapeutic treatment.

“In all of our various organizations, how can we collaborate together to create a system of support for people with substance use disorders in seeking employment? How do we coordinate our employment services with the treatment and peer recovery services that have that expertise?”

All questions Sullivan believes are worth exploring, which is why she asked Shaw to talk about CORE to this crowd. Discussions about bolstering employment support for people in recovery and those whose drug use may have led them into the justice system are very much central to HOPE’s mission, she contends.

“Hampshire Hope seems like the perfect place to bring that all together because we are conveners,” she said.

Laurie Loisel is director of education and outreach in the office of Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, which is part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of Northampton’s Health Department. Hampshire HOPE members contribute to this monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.

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