Hope Amidst the Opioid Crisis: Grassroots Passion and a Continuum of Care

Feb 21, 2017

Tonia Wright and Tugg Massa founded the thrift shop New Beginnings in Kenmore to help addicts
Credit Amanda Rabinowitz / WKSU

There are many stories of hope woven through the tragedies of Ohio’s opioid epidemic. In this installment of our series, Opioids: Turning the Tide in the Crisis, WKSU's Amanda Rabinowitz looks at the range of recovery methods, from addicts simply helping each other out to structured treatment programs.  

Opening doors
In some of the region’s hardest hit communities, addicts and their families are mobilizing on the streets to help each other.   

"If my daughter gets sobriety, I will dedicate my life to this epidemic."

One of these groups, ‘Akron Say No to Dope,' has just turned a vacant storefront in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood into New Beginnings, a thrift shop with the goal of raising money for a housing complex for recovering addicts.

But what you don’t see among the knick knacks is what happens in a kitchen area behind the store --  it’s a makeshift support and crisis center.  

Tonia Wright of Akron spends most of her days here, running the shop along with several others touched by addiction. In this back room, they offer help to anyone who wanders in, whether it’s a meal or a talk -- or a phone call or ride to a detox or rehab center.  

"I said, if my daughter gets sobriety, I will dedicate my life to this epidemic," Wright says.

Her daughter, 21-year-old Kylie Moynihan, spends most of her days at New Beginnings, too.

She’s six months clean from a heroin addiction that started with pain pills in high school and spiraled into snorting the drug when Percocet became too expensive. After detoxing and then relapsing, she flew to a rehab facility in Florida. The real work began a few months later.

"As soon as I got off the plane in Akron, you know what I felt like? I felt like a low-life junkie all over again, 'cause I took myself out of this surrounding area and that’s what I made myself here. I came home to where I used, with the same old people and all the same stress, the same streets."

Vivitrol helps fight cravings
Moynihan’s mom immediately got her into an intensive outpatient program through Summit County’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, and Moynihan got on the drug Vivitrol. Once a month, she gets an injection that blocks opioid receptors in her brain, so she can’t get high if she tried. It helps control her cravings, which can linger for years.

"Every night I go to bed next to my 3-year-old daughter. And the last year of her life I haven’t been there, so it’s nice being back around again, being a mom again," Moynihan says.   

Other medication-assisted treatment
Vivitrol is one of three types of drugs used in medication-assisted treatment. It can only be prescribed to someone who has completely detoxed from opioids, while methadone and Suboxone can be used during withdrawal as a bridge -- under strict supervision at a clinic.

Dr. Greg Johnson manages about 700 patients at Community Health Center in East Akron. He says he has about a dozen people currently using Vivitrol, but he’s starting to prescribe it more.

He says Vivitrol helps when addicts get to a point where they're no longer physically dependent on the drug, "but that little voice in my brain still is there. Remember, this is not a curable disease – treatable -- but not curable. There’s always that little thing going on. Put them on the Vivitrol, it helps cut that down."

"I see the miracles that happen every single day and you can't take that away. You just can't."

Johnson says most patients are weaned off the drugs over time. Many of those providing treatment acknowledge that even after decades of success, medication-assisted recovery has its critics. Keith Hochadel of CommQuest in Stark County says some see it as using one drug to replace another.

"I’m a fan of medication-assisted recovery, I know not everybody is, but I see the miracles that happen every single day and you can’t take that away. You just can't."

Working the program 
For others, it’s the message, not medication that got through. Brian Caldwell, 22, of Akron, has been sober since May 23, 2016. He started abusing pain pills and eventually heroin. He went to prison for selling drugs to support his habit and cycled through several of Summit County’s detox and rehab facilities. Then, he overdosed and was admitted to IBH Addiction Recovery Center in Akron.  

“I spent 76 days here. They got me into AA, and I built the best sober support system that I ever could get. You can do this, if you really want to. This is possible. Look at me, I am living proof right here that this works.”

Caldwell says it’s about being ready to make the change. Tonia Wright, who runs the thrift shop, New Beginnings, says that was the case with her daughter. But then they had to find help. In desperation, she Googled the word "rehab."

“I had no idea that we actually had local rehabs,” Wright says. 

Outreach and meeting demand
The Summit County ADM board is working on that through a new helpline and outreach program. Director Jerry Craig says the epidemic overwhelms his resources, but his agency is learning how to better manage what it has.

“Everything we do to increase capacity in one part of our system has an impact on other parts of our system," Craig says. "So, we have to pay close attention that if we build out 10 more detox beds, but we don’t have treatment for them and we released back into the community, they’re back into a use environment.”

Craig says pulling them out of that environment takes a combination of addicts wanting to get clean, having the resources for recovery and the follow through to get there. Addicts say there’s one other crucial ingredient that’s emerged – fentanyl and carfentanil and along with those opioids – the fear that they’ll die.