As she bows out, Hampshire HOPE’s ‘conductor’ takes stock

  • J. Cherry Sullivan, left, has been coordinator of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition, run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. for the past seven years. Gazette file photo

  • J. Cherry Sullivan, coordinator of Hampshire HOPE at Northampton’s Health Department, speaks at a naloxone training, June 26, 2018, at the Smithsonian Chowder House with DART officer Adam Van Buskirk, at back. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Monday, May 09, 2022

As I prepare to leave Hampshire HOPE after seven years as coordinator, I’ve found myself taking stock of the progress made. I’ll take the opportunity in this farewell column to share some of those accomplishments.

Hampshire HOPE is a countywide convener for people who — based on employment, activism or personal experiences — are dedicated to reducing opioid overdoses and improving conditions for people struggling with opioid use disorders. This means that accomplishments are very much a community effort.

People often evaluate the success of an opioid coalition by looking at overdose death data, but I’d say that isn’t the best measure, in part because it doesn’t reflect the many variables at play.

Overdose death rates in Hampshire County don’t show a substantial decrease over the past seven years, and two factors influencing that data are the COVID-19 pandemic and the unremitting presence of the lethal drug fentanyl in much of the illicit drug supply.

These variables have deeply impacted communities across the nation. Yet, comparing Hampshire County data to that of the nation and state suggests a measure of success: Overdoses have remained steady and not increased.

Overdose death prevention can be difficult to measure, but it’s essential to our work: Since 2018, using federal funding and with the help of many partners, Hampshire HOPE has distributed about 4,800 two-dose packages of the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone. The HOPE coalition has also supported the efforts of the offices of the Northwestern district attorney and the Hampshire County sheriff in getting unneeded drugs out of medicine cabinets to prevent misuse. Ten Hampshire County communities are holding drug takeback events on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Other initiatives I believe are changing the landscape of opioid overdose prevention include:

■ The recovery supportive workplace initiative that offers free training and technical support for employers and employees to create workplaces that support people in recovery.

■ The Drug Addiction and Recovery Team (DART), a network of first responders, recovery coaches, and harm reduction specialists that supports people who have experienced overdoses or are at risk for overdose. DART has grown to work with family members and expanded to communities in Hampden and Berkshire counties.

■ Efforts to interrupt stigma and elevate the voices of people in recovery: Helping launch the Northampton Recovery Center through visioning sessions organized by HOPE; installing Naloboxes (essentially first aid boxes containing naloxone and other supplies) in municipal buildings, libraries and schools; and playing a role in community events such as the recovery-positive photo exhibit Project Redemption, the Academy of Music’s production of “(In)Dependent: The Heroin Project,” and visits by speakers like Michael Botticelli, the nation’s former drug czar.

Another indication of the success of a coalition is alignment of policies and practices among different organizations to approach this crisis with consistency and coordination. Using this lens, I see wins all around. The Hampshire County Pre-Release Roundtable meets regularly with people from social services and treatment agencies, the Northampton Recovery Center, and Tapestry to arrive at the best ways to support people leaving jail.

Most recently, we’ve pulled together people from the jail, social services, recovery and employment support, along with harm reduction specialists, to work on reducing the number of overdose deaths among people recently released from incarceration, for whom the overdose death rate is 120 times higher than the general population.

To me, the greatest achievement of any community coalition is seen in the relationships built over time. By working together, people from sectors that might carry preconceived and inaccurate ideas about each other get to know each other through conversations about a life-and-death problem with no easy answers.

People who use drugs or people in recovery sometimes have negative feelings toward the criminal justice system. People who work in harm reduction can mistrust people in law enforcement and vice versa. And yet, these groups worked together on one of the most urgent public health threats of our time.

HOPE members challenge one another to rethink preconceived notions, the language used, and assumptions about the solutions to this epidemic. This takes time because it requires trust, and building trust takes time.

Someone once likened a coalition coordinator to an orchestra conductor. It’s an apt metaphor. A coalition brings together people with a shared goal, in our case ending the opioid crisis, encouraging each to play their own tune, complementing one another and creating a whole that is much stronger than the sum of its parts.

It has been a true honor to be Hampshire HOPE’s conductor. I’m leaving to work for an organization that addresses housing and food insecurity in the Upper Valley of Vermont, where I moved during the pandemic. I’ll take the many lessons I learned from the people I worked with at Hampshire HOPE to my new job, and I’m confident that whoever picks up the HOPE baton will be well positioned to carry on because of the relationships nurtured over time. To me, that’s quite an accomplishment.

J. Cherry Sullivan is the soon-to-be former coordinator of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Hampshire HOPE members contribute to this monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.