Alumni Combat the Opioid Epidemic in greater Brockton

February 24, 2017

The quarterly meeting of the Brockton Area Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative is an unexpected place for a Stonehill reunion. Yet that’s precisely where six graduates gather regularly in an effort to stem the tide of opioid use in the region. And that’s a big job. According to 2016 data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, opioid-related deaths in the state were more than four times higher in 2015 than in 2000, with an especially sharp rise in the last two years. In fact, in 2014, the fatal overdose rate in the Bay State was more than double the national average.

The Brockton Area Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative is working to reverse those statistics. Established in 2008, the Collaborative seeks to advance substance use education and prevention efforts in Brockton, Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, Rockland, and Whitman-Hanson. It is funded through four federal and state grants. “We’re working to target and sustain change within the communities: to prevent kids from using substances, help people who are using substances to stop, and prevent overdoses,” says Hillary Dubois Farquharson ’06, who serves as Collaborative director.

In addition to Farquharson, who is also director of prevention services for High Point Treatment Center, Collaborative members with a Stonehill connection are: Ed Jacoubs ’80, director of grants and sponsored projects for the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office; Koren Cappiello ’03, director of community and social services for the city of Brockton; Kelly Macomber ’13 and Gabrielle Peruccio ’14, work as Coordinators for the Brockton Area Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative; and Merielle Paul ’13, senior regional manager for Taunton-based Learn to Cope, a nationally recognized support network for families dealing with addiction and recovery.

Learning Curve

The opioid crisis is receiving much more media attention than it was five years ago, both nationally and regionally. Despite growing awareness, Collaborative alumni stress that misunderstandings persist. “People don’t understand addiction as a brain disease,” says Macomber. “It’s seen as a moral issue, one where people make bad choices.” This bias manifests itself, for example, in a lack of treatment beds. “If you had a brain tumor, you wouldn’t be told, ‘we don’t have a bed. Come back in a month,’” she notes.

And unless it affects them directly, “people don’t know or appreciate that addiction doesn’t discriminate,” adds Paul. “It could happen to anybody and anybody’s family. It cuts across race, gender, class, and geography.”

“Today, I don’t think anyone disagrees that opioids are a problem,” says Jacoubs, who applied for the first grant that established the Collaborative. “The question now is how do we change that? How can we educate parents, kids, doctors, etc., to help take control of the situation?”

Baby Steps

Measuring progress in this public health crisis, however, is challenging. “Objectively, we measure it by reporting on progress toward the grants’ stated goals—whether it’s reducing overdoses or the number of teens reporting that they’re using substances,” says Macomber. “In a more subjective sense, we measure it by asking ourselves, are we doing everything we can for the community—are we putting everything we have into it?”

“It can be hard to stay positive as the epidemic goes on,” says Cappiello. “We have to look for progress in small ways, small steps.” And Cappiello has taken more than a few small steps. In 2008, she served as the Collaborative’s first director before passing the reins to Farquharson. In 2016, she started the Champion Plan, an innovative service model that connects individuals struggling with substance use disorders with recovery coaches through the police department.

“The coaches help people find detox or other programs that fit their needs and then follow up to support them. Afterwards, if they need outpatient services, half-way houses, or sober living, we help with that too. And if they come back into the community, we support them in reaching their goals, whatever those are. In the program’s first year, so far we worked with more than 300 individuals. We’ve had clients who have had babies sober, others have gotten into college. We’re very proud.

Farquharson too sees progress. “In 2010, we’d be lucky to get a beat cop to come to a Collaborative meeting. I heard from police departments throughout the region that there was no way their officers would ever carry naloxone,” the emergency drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, she explains. “But by 2014, we trained more than 100 officers on its use. Today, police in nearly every community carry naloxone—and all of the area police chiefs come to Collaborative meetings.”

“There’s not a beginning, middle, and end to this work,” observes Jacoubs. “Five years ago, I thought, ‘How are we going to wrap our head around this?’ Now, although the end isn’t in sight, we at least have a strategy and a plan.”

Roots on the Hill

The story of how these alumni came together in their work on this pernicious public health issue begins with Jacoubs. For more than 20 years, he has served an adjunct faculty member at Stonehill, teaching courses in the Criminology department on juvenile delinquency and at-risk youth and families. His passion for the subject and love of teaching have inspired a generation of alumni to pursue careers in human services, including the five who are now his colleagues on the Collaborative.

“We like to joke that we’re taking over,” says Paul, who, like the other five graduates, credits Jacoubs and the college with setting her on this path. “Stonehill gave us the courage and resources to get to where we are. I always felt like Stonehill was a place that supported my career choice.”

In her junior year, Farquharson spent a semester abroad, interning at a program for addicts in Ireland. “I got to see the way the Irish treated substance use and criminal behavior,” she says. “Addiction was seen as a disease, not a moral failing. Men who were in active heroin use who had committed murder were eligible for parole in seven years. They were given a second shot at life. That, to me, mirrored Stonehill’s philosophy of compassion and understanding.”

“I didn’t go through college thinking I’d end up doing this,” Peruccio reflects. “But I look back now and see how all of the different experiences I had at Stonehill added up to get me here. Stonehill encouraged me to follow all of those leads and take opportunities as they came.”

Jacoubs couldn’t be happier about the fact that he’s able to work alongside five of his former students. “These women are brilliant, committed, and some of the smartest students I ever had,” he concludes. “One of the great joys of my life is that I get to work with them. Not a day goes by that they don’t teach me something. That’s special.”