ELLSWORTH — At a time when Maine is seeing its highest drug overdose numbers to date, a program started in 2016 by the Ellsworth Police Department in partnership with Healthy Acadia continues to bring tangible hope into the lives of area residents suffering from substance abuse disorder. Since 2016, Project HOPE has offered help to those in need with no resources except, perhaps, motivation. All one needs to do is walk into the police station and ask for an “angel.”
“My life had kind of gone to hell, and I started using again after being clean for a while,” Cherryfield resident Nick Morse said, with a nod to the death of his father a year ago. “I talked to Healthy Acadia, and they told me to come up.”
Morse walked into the police station and told the dispatcher he was there for Project HOPE. Because he spoke first with Healthy Acadia, he did not walk in alone, but the welcome would have been just the same if he had.
“[The police] are really great about it, but you don’t know that walking in,” Healthy Acadia Maine RecoveryCorps Director Paige Johnston said. “But if someone is hesitant about walking in, someone [from Healthy Acadia] can meet them there.”
A Project HOPE angel arranges for immediate treatment and takes care of all the details once the person speaks with a police officer. Anyone entering Project HOPE can safely surrender illegal substances without legal consequences or questions. The one caveat is if police find an active arrest warrant, but they will still work with the individual to resolve the issue to open the door to treatment.
“They were great,” Morse said. “They took me into the intake room. They gave me a plane ticket there and back.”
He returned from his 28-day stay in a Richmond, Va., treatment center on June 26 with a job already lined up and connected with a recovery coach through Healthy Acadia. Coaches are trained and certified volunteers who act as personal guides and mentors for those seeking or in early sobriety.
“I just knew I needed to go before I got worse, and they got me in quick,” Morse said. “They were amazing.”
A crucial piece of Project HOPE is the immediate help it can provide, which is not always easy or even possible with wait lists for treatment beds. That is the reason behind flying someone to another state if a local bed is not available.
“A significant amount of people who utilize the program are transient,” Johnston said. “If you can’t place them right then, the follow-up becomes impossible at times.”
Another challenge is matching the right treatment center to the recovery patient, who may want faith-based or medical-based treatment or just want to be able to smoke.
“Everything is their choice,” Crossman said. “It’s not going to work for them if it’s not something they want.”
Recovery does not usually come cost-free. The cost of a 28-day residential recovery program runs in the thousands and thousands of dollars. The $1,500 Project HOPE has for each recipient may only cover travel expenses. Recovery Programs Coordinator Tracy Crossman works hard to garner scholarships from addiction treatment centers across the U.S.
While small grants have helped nurture and continue the program, Healthy Acadia Development Director Shoshana Smith said, “Project HOPE is sustained primarily through the generosity of community and business donors.”
The number of Project HOPE recipients has varied from year to year. Eight people went through the program in 2016 after its October launch. In 2017, twenty-two people came through the doors, but then the numbers began to drop, from nine in 2018, to five in 2019, seven in 2020 and four so far in 2021.
“We’ve seen a gradual decline in part over the years,” City Manager and Police Chief Glenn Moshier noted. “Our biggest issue is outreach.”
Officers hand out information on Project HOPE while policing. Or individuals can contact Healthy Acadia, as Morse did, by email ([email protected]), phone (610-0386) or website (www.healthyacadia.org/spr-deph). People can also directly call the EPD at 667-2168 and ask for Project HOPE assistance.
While people are asked to come on Tuesdays between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Moshier said people come in for Project HOPE on all days and are helped.
“This is a Police Department initiative,” Crossman added, that began under former Police Chief Harold “Pete” Bickmore and Detective Dottie Small. As soon as Small retired, she signed up to be an angel, Crossman noted.
Moshier said that while Project HOPE originally was “solely stood up” by the EPD, Healthy Acadia always had a secondary role in helping train the angels. Now, “the great thing about [partnering with] Healthy Acadia is it provides the opportunity for grant funding.”
Back from treatment, Morse helps out at the Healthy Acadia recovery center in Machias and plans to start his own meeting when the Ellsworth recovery center opens on Church Street toward the end of summer.
“I feel good,” he said. “I never had tools before to cope with anything and handle that stuff. And now I do. And I feel a lot better about stuff.”