From the ground up

Grassroots efforts are building a recovery network for heroin addiction

When John Burns hosted the first Families Hoping and Coping support group meeting in Dover about a year ago, only three or four people showed up. “And I knew all of them,” he says.

The group initially met twice a month at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, offering families of heroin and opioid addicts a place to share their stories, receive support, and connect with each other. Soon, so many people were showing up that Burns started hosting weekly meetings on Thursday nights. Two months ago, as the numbers kept growing, Burns started a second group in Rochester.

That group meets on Monday nights in the offices of the Wellness and Recovery Place, just outside of downtown in the Merchant’s Plaza building. At the group’s latest meeting, Burns and nine others — including a couple of new members — gathered to talk about heroin addiction. Situated in plush chairs and comfortable leather couches, they share their stories.

Most of the attendees are parents; their kids are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and all are struggling with addiction. The conversation bounces from person to person. There are anecdotes and affirmations, tips for self-care and lamentations about how difficult it is to find treatment and resources for their children.

As the meeting winds down, Burns passes around a small stack of paper and some pens, so that the members can write down their phone numbers for each other. “If you have a Saturday night crisis, you have someone to call,” he says.

Heroin and opiate addiction has become an epidemic, according to local and state officials. And, though much attention has been drawn to the problem within the last few years, it keeps growing. Burns, who lives in Somersworth, says police in the city have responded to 50 overdose calls so far this year.

“We know we have the recovery capital here. We just have to build it and figure out where to put it.” — John Burns

Though the problem is increasing, resources remain in short supply. According to New Futures, a nonprofit that advocates for preventing and treating alcohol and other drug problems in the state, New Hampshire ranks second-to-last in the country when it comes to treatment and recovery services.

Money to fund recovery services is scarce — the state’s Alcohol Fund, started in 2003 to help pay for alcohol and drug abuse treatment and recovery using 5 percent of the profits from the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, has received full funding only once in the last 12 years — in 2003, the year it was created.

For the most part, the money slated for the Alcohol Fund ends up in the state’s general fund. For example, according to New Futures, the Alcohol Fund should have received $16.8 million during the 2014-2015 budget biennium; instead, it received $3.59 million.

Ask experts involved in recovery efforts around the state what the biggest challenges facing them are and there’s a common refrain: there aren’t enough resources. That includes everything from beds in treatment facilities to recovery centers, where people in long-term recovery can get help with finding jobs, signing up for insurance, and staying sober.

As a result, a grassroots recovery network has sprung up here in the Seacoast. Some of those involved are in recovery themselves; some aren’t. But all have a personal connection to addiction, and they’re tackling the problem on multiple fronts, from lobbying lawmakers to increase funding for substance abuse treatment programs to opening recovery centers.

Building bonds 
Mark Lefebvre is one of the co-founders of Safe Harbor Recovery Center. He, along with his wife, Vivian, and Sandi Coyle, are three of Safe Harbor’s volunteer leaders. They hope to open a physical location in the Seacoast by the end of the year.

“We want to provide a safe place and a set of services to help a person in recovery get back on their feet, to reintegrate with their family and reintegrate with society,” he says.

Lefebvre is in recovery himself — he’ll be celebrating three years of sobriety next month. He was addicted to alcohol and opiates, which he’d started using heavily as a result of surgeries he’d had over the years. He wound up in the hospital; when he got out and was ready to get clean, there were no open spots at treatment facilities in the state.

“We were desperate. We had nowhere to turn to,” he says. He ended up in California, where he spent almost two months at a treatment center. He took a year-long leave of absence from work and started putting his life back together. But others aren’t so lucky, Lefebvre says — they don’t have a job to return to, or family and friends who can help keep them on track.

That’s where a place like Safe Harbor comes in, he says. The center will offer peer-based recovery services — in other words, people already in long-term recovery will help those who are just getting sober.

“It’s a safe place for people to land. People can stay there through the day and find what they need,” he says.

Lefebvre says the group is looking for funding and a physical space for the center. And they’re tackling the heroin problem in other ways, too. Lefebvre, along with others in the recovery community, was part of a “die-in” at the Statehouse, a protest organized by New Futures asking legislators to increase funding for substance abuse treatment in the state budget. He’s also trying to get Heroin Anonymous (HA) meetings going in Portsmouth and Seabrook. HA meetings already take place multiple times a week at the Triangle Club in Dover, but the region needs more meetings, he says.

“We’re action-oriented,” Lefebvre says.

“There’s a common recognition that we need to do something. It’s not an individual or a family problem. It’s a public health crisis.”
— Mark Lefebvre

Members of the local recovery community are all connected. Go to a community forum on addiction or attend one of the monthly Recovery Round Table meetings hosted by the Seacoast Public Health Network in Portsmouth and you’re likely to see a lot of the same faces. They’re working together to build a recovery network largely from scratch. Take Kerry Norton — she’s a nurse at Garrison Women’s Health and comes to Burns’ Monday night group in Rochester. Norton is also part of an effort to open an addiction treatment center in the area for pregnant women and women with children.

“There’s a pretty large recovery community around here,” Burns says before the meeting. “And, once you get connected, there’s a fair amount of moral support. That doesn’t get you treatment, and it doesn’t get you a bed, but it does get you peer support.”

Burns has been in recovery for 23 years for “a bunch of stuff — none of it good,” he says. His daughter is 18; she’s been in recovery for heroin addiction for eight months. Her story is a common one, he says. She started using alcohol and marijuana when she was a young teenager, then progressed to prescription drugs, then to heroin. When she wanted to get treatment, Burns says, he had to send her out of state.

“There weren’t any resources in New Hampshire,” he says.

His experiences inspired him to start the Families Hoping and Coping group. As the group has grown, he’s also been looking at establishing a recovery center in Strafford County. The plans are a “little more than a brainstorm,” he says, but there’s potential.

“We know we have the recovery capital here. We just have to build it and figure out where t