In late 2015 and early 2016, the Woodstock community was shocked into action by a string of drug-related deaths of young people — not kids from some unfamiliar segment of society, who could easily be labeled “those kind of people,” but the offspring of affluent, respectable families. People gathered at meetings and memorial services to express their horror and brainstorm ways to deal with the scourge of heroin and opioid painkillers endangering local kids.
Progress was made. Two young women formed the Route 212 Coalition, which set up support groups, linked families with services in Woodstock and Saugerties, and started a Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) at the Woodstock police station. Information about substance abuse rehabilitation programs was widely published, and trainings were held to teach people to administer life-saving Narcan in cases of drug overdose. Drug dropboxes were established at police stations, so people could get opioids out of their houses, no questions asked. And gradually the community shifted focus to other issues.
But the drug problem has not gone away.
Dr. Maya Hambright, who works at Samaritan Village, a residential substance abuse program in Ellenville, said the facility has a long waiting list of kids from all over Ulster County. “I think heroin is as accessible now as it was in 2015,” she said, “and the pills are still out there. We haven’t had another string of overdose deaths, so that’s amazing. But all around us kids are still dying.”
One of her tools is the prescription of suboxone, a chemical combination that blocks the effects of opioids and relieves symptoms of withdrawal, helping many drug users emerge from heroin addiction. “Hopefully that’s also saving lives,” said Hambright. “There’s a lot of controversy about whether it’s just trading one drug for another. I don’t believe that’s the case.”
“I think the awareness that was raised a year and a half ago did a tremendous amount for opening people’s eyes in town and helping people understand they couldn’t continue to look away,” said Emily Sherry, whose sandwich shop Provisions, on Tinker Street in Woodstock, brings her into daily contact with youth. “People understand we need to be present in our community and be honest about what is happening here.”
Anthony Heaney, her husband and co-owner of the shop, noted that last year’s initiatives were followed by a major drug bust on Ohayo Mountain Road that lessened the flow of heroin into Woodstock for a while. “I don’t know if it was just coincidence,” he said, “or if it had to do with people’s focus on the issue. But users had to go to Newburgh or Poughkeepsie to get heroin, so a lot of the younger kids, who didn’t have cars, couldn’t get it unless they had help from a friend.”
At that point, said Emily, a number of young people went into treatment, trying to address their addiction. Some were successful, but others continue to struggle. “One of the young men we knew had been using for quite a while,” she said. “He came in, excited to tell us he was clean. He was vibrant, committed to kicking the addiction. He died a few months ago, and it was tough for us. It also showed people that drugs are still an issue.”
Sherry and Heaney have a history of reaching out to youth with problems, seeking to allay the sense of shame that accompanies addiction while encouraging kids to seek treatment and get off drugs. Their tiny shop has a pay-it-forward board. Customers can pay for a coffee or a sandwich for another person and pin a notice to the board. Kids with no money come in and redeem the notes for something to eat or drink.
Three times over the past year, the couple have hired recovering addicts to work in the shop, hoping to support the recovery process. In all three cases, the kids wound up back on drugs. “We can’t do it any more,” said Heaney. “We had to change our policy. We’re community-minded, but we’re more in the food business than the heart-being-broken business. You invest a lot, especially Emily — she gets so committed, so attached to the kids, supports them….”
“You get behind them,” said Sherry, fighting back tears, “and when they start using again, it hurts a lot. It’s too painful for me and too detrimental to the business to struggle with their addictions, personal issues, family drama. A kid came in here last week because he’d heard at an AA meeting that we hire people who are clean. I said, ‘How much clean time do you have?’ He said, ‘One day.’ I said, ‘Come back in a month.’ He got very angry.”
The young man went to the police station to check out PAARI, which connects any drug user asking for help with resources for treatment. He refused to go to a hospital for detox. “But they were willing,” said Sherry, “and they told him they had resources to support him. That makes a big difference for our community, to have that available.”
Although Sherry and Heaney are no longer willing to employ recovering addicts, they continue to talk to kids, feed them, and try to find other ways to help. Recently, Fawn Meola, Coordinator of Children’s Services at the Woodstock Library, asked if they would conduct a cooking class, as several children had expressed interest in learning to cook. The couple leaped at the chance and have scheduled a class for Tuesday, August 29, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., at the Woodstock Reformed Church, for kids aged eight and up. The lesson will also raise awareness about food insecurity in the town by having the kids cook a meal for the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen.
“We need to come up with as many things as we can to keep kids busy and off the street,” said Sherry. “We need the library, the youth center, places for children to go that are safe and enriching and interactive. The [Paul Green] Rock Academy does great work, and they give scholarships. The kids going there are really involved.”
“Kids have to develop some sort of skill,” agreed Heaney. “Getting to them early helps a little bit. The class and the soup kitchen is something to focus on. I would also like to see different parts of the community — conservative and liberal — come together under a non-political umbrella and see what that looks like.”
“That’s what manifested around the heroin crisis,” said Sherry. “The community was able to come together as a whole, because children were dying from all walks of life. It would be nice to have that unity without an immediate crisis. Disparity between groups is growing. If there’s something to bridge that gap, I think food is it.”
Woodstock Library Youth Program presents “Learn to Cook” with the owners of Provisions on Tuesday, August 29, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., at the Woodstock Reformed Church, located on the town green. The class is for kids aged eight and up and is free. Students will prepare a meal for the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen. To register or for more information, email Dawn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We need to have a lot of different kinds of recovery programs,” said 31-year-old Morgan Spinedi, now sober for five years. “And all programs need to be supported by the community.”
Spinedi, who grew up in Woodstock, was arrested three times in ten months for driving while intoxicated. Under probation, he couldn’t drink, so he turned to heroin. “In my early twenties, people suggested going to AA and NA, but I thought I had it under control,” he said. “I had a job and my own place. The idea of an anonymous program, with people who were not in my age group and probably knew my parents and people I worked with, was not at the top of my list of things to do.” After several trips to rehab, Spinedi went back to his habit as soon as he hit the street.
He was arrested, with many other young people, in Operation Clean Sweep in 2012 and did jail time in Kingston. One day, while he was in solitary confinement, the book cart went past, and a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, the AA textbook, was dropped into his cell. “I read that book over and over,” he recalled. “I held onto it for a month. Then I went to as many AA meetings as I could in jail.” A series of humbling but healing experiences followed: drug court, a year in a halfway house, the death of an old friend from an overdose. “A death like that would make some people go back out,” he said, “but I got even more involved in AA.”
As sobriety lengthened and his clean support network grew, “I started to be okay,” said Spinedi. At yet another funeral, he met Marie Klementis Shultis, founder of the AWARENESS peer counseling program in New Paltz, and he volunteered to work with young people in the program.
Shultis echoed Spinedi’s statement about the need for different kinds of programs. “If a 16-year-old is caught smoking pot in school, he can be put in a rehab with other people at much higher risk, people who’ve been taking prescription drugs and heroin,” which can draw such kids into taking more dangerous drugs. At AWARENESS, former addicts educate young people who are heading down a perilous path, helping them see where their choices may lead and how to make better decisions. Those who are already dabbling in harder drugs are encouraged to seek treatment options appropriate to their situation.
“We have a lot of good stories,” said Shultis. “But there is so much heartbreak out there.”
Spinedi, like other counselors in the program, feels his role as a mentor to younger people has been valuable in maintaining his own recovery. He is now studying geophysics at City College of New York.
For more information on the AWARENESS program, see http://www.awarenessinc.org.