COIN representatives Sarah Gagne and Kelly Young with their display. They were also part of the forum panel.
COIN representatives Sarah Gagne and Kelly Young with their display. They were also part of the forum panel.

SHIRLEY -- SHAARP -- Societal Heroin Abuse Awareness Resource Project -- hosted its 3rd annual forum at the Shirley Middle School recently and the program included so much information and insight about addiction, the opioid epidemic and area resources, it was a challenge to take it all in.

Organizations offering related programs and services had set up display tables in the lobby, for starters. They included COIN, "community outreach initiative network," a 10-town collaborative for the Northwest Middlesex area with links to mental health and substance use resources; Leominster, MA, Substance Abuse Outreach Program, with links to a network of regional resources, from shelters, soup kitchens and Al-Anon meetings to advocacy for victims of domestic violence. A pamphlet fronted with the city seal lists contact information and life-saving steps in case of an opioid overdose.

GAAMHA, Inc., of Gardner, offers recovery coaching, with a men's residential facility in Athol; Alyssa's Place, also in Gardner, is a peer recovery and resource center. SMART offers on-line recovery assistance. Crossing Over Inc., is a male "sober house" in Maynard. Our Father's House, in Fitchburg, provides emergency shelter and transitional housing to homeless men, women and children.

On the auditorium stage, a panel of speakers included counselors, coaches, a nurse, an ER physician and an activist police officer from Brockton. There were data and back-up statistics, graphs, charts and a demonstration: how to revive an overdose victim.


Moderated by ASMS school counselor Sharon Webb and introduced by Lt. Alfreda Cromwell, of the Shirley Police Department, they covered a lot of ground in two hours.

Senator James Eldridge, (D-Acton) who has supported SHAARP since its inception, described work in progress at the Statehouse, including passed or pending bills and other cause-related initiatives he's advocating for.

Each speaker offered a unique perspective on the opioid epidemic.

Brockton Police Officer Nancy Leedberg, who directs the "Not My Kid" program, demonstrates how to administer Narcan spray to an opioid overdose
Brockton Police Officer Nancy Leedberg, who directs the "Not My Kid" program, demonstrates how to administer Narcan spray to an opioid overdose victim. In the past, the antioverdose drug was only available in hospital or clinical settings or to those trained to use it, such as school personnel. Experts now say that anyone can perform this lifesaving procedure, using Narcan spray.

The big picture is that it is a nationwide problem and has hit Massachusetts hard -- even small communities in the Nashoba region have suffered its devastating effects. The good news is there's more help available now, and as awareness spreads, less social stigma.

In a typical scenario, the downward spiral starts with pain pills prescribed after an injury or surgery. Over-the-counter drugs might have sufficed, but doctors often prescribed opioids, which can lead to addiction. Teens and very young adults, whose brains are still developing, are most vulnerable. Refills run out. Heroin comes next. Worst case outcome: fatal overdose. Fentanyl, a synthetic drug, is another illegal alternative, with varying side effects due to its sketchy chemical makeup. One dose can be a dud; another, deadly.

According to a recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) survey, 115 people die from opioid overdoses in the United States every day.

Some speakers shared front-line stories, personal, professional or both.

Daniel Muse, a Brockton-based ER physician and Medical Director for the city's Municipal Police Training Committee, blamed physicians and drug companies for causing the opioid epidemic and credited law enforcement agencies for working to stop it, with compassion rather than criminal charges.

Dr. Muse showed an on-screen photo of two young boys: his son and a friend he grew up with. Both were "great kids," he said, solid students, talented athletes. His son went on to college and success on the field and off. His friend, addicted to drugs prescribed for a sports injury, died of an overdose.

It was the only difference between them, he said. Both boys came from the same background: strong families, good schools. Both had bright futures. But addiction changed everything for one of them.

The story was a case in point. Opioid addiction is not a choice. It can happen to anyone. It's not about rich vs poor, class advantages or neighborhood influences. It's about drugs.

The takeaway: society must win this battle and organizations like SHAARP and others represented at the forum can help, as information hubs, awareness advocates, catalysts for change. 

Now many members strong and with a growing go-to network, SHAARP offers a compassionate, first contact option for people struggling with addiction and their families, with no strings attached.

Cromwell, who joined SHAARP early on, traced the group's four year history, listing members and others who have supported its mission, part of which is banishing social stigma associated with addiction. In her book, that makes the people whose names she'd just read "champions...of change," Cromwell said, and she's proud of their accomplishments so far.