Community key to fighting opioid addiction in Centre County

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a five-part series looking at heroin and opioids in Centre County.

Brenda Goldman was used to helping other people.

The Bellefonte mom had worked for years to help put together families through adoption.

Then she watched drugs blow her own family apart.

Her son Jake struggled with addiction from the time he was in high school.

“He was 16 years old,” she said. “He started with pills.”

It went downhill from there. He went in and out of programs and had brushes with the law. It left them both shaken and looking for answers until Jake found help at Teen Challenge, a faith-based residential center where everything came together.

Jake says his turning point was a moment when he realized what his addiction was doing, not to him, but to his mother. That was when he was willing to try again, to put his all into it, so that they could both find a way back to a normal life.

What they both found was a way to help other people fight the same battle. For Jake, it was through Teen Challenge, the eastern Pennsylvania treatment center for men where he stayed after getting clean. He stayed on as an employee.

For Brenda, it was through starting a new nonprofit to help other families figure out how to find the resources they need for their own battles. It’s called The Ambassador Program.

The office is simple and small, a bright, clean startup space in downtown Bellefonte where TAP set up shop with the donation of a year’s lease. It doesn’t have frills. It has bare essentials like a desk, a computer and printer and someone who knows the ropes to explain them to someone who doesn’t have the first clue where to start.

And it has a goal. Someday, Brenda wants to have TAP help provide a bridge between treatment and a return to a normal life, with host families providing a stable environment for people to transition as they recover.

She learned with Jake that an addict just can’t come home without being confronted with all the triggers that pulled him into his previous behaviors.

“For Jake, it was the smell of coffee first thing in the morning. That was his routine, have some coffee and a cigarette and some heroin,” Brenda said.

In his new life — as he fights the pathways opioids cut through his brain — he needs to build new routines, away from the things that prompt cravings and the familiar places where he knows drugs can be obtained.

Cathy Arbogast, of Centre County Drug and Alcohol, agrees.

“We talk about people, places and things. You cannot do what you’ve always done. You can’t spend time with the same people you always have. You can’t do the same things,” she said. “What’s going to be different this time. How do you manage that in a world where those triggers are so prevalent. What is the new normal. It’s an ongoing challenge because every person is unique.”

“If we can relieve a little of that stress, we can help them really stay grounded,” Brenda said.

And it’s a road with a lot of stress. Return to those stresses, and the risk of relapse is huge, especially within the first 90 days.

Other people in the community are trying different ways to combat Pennsylvania and Centre County’s growing problem with heroin and opioid addiction. Andy Moir and Christie Watson started United Against Heroin Addiction to combat the drug’s grip with a multipronged attack. They want to help addicts directly, while educating the community, supporting loved ones and lobbying for more assistance from the government.

“I had no idea how bad it was,” Moir said.

Like many, he thought heroin and opioids were a problem in other places. Centre County, remote and small, with a large chunk of the population well-educated, couldn’t possibly face the same problems as a Philadelphia street corner. Except that it does.

Then Moir started paying attention. Friends of friends were affected. He cleaned out the apartments of the deceased.

“This just kept on hitting. I started looking at it, investigating it, looking at the history of opiates,” he said.

And then he met Watson at church, and they came up with a plan.

“We want to rebuild the U.S., one county at a time,” he said.

And the pair want Centre County to be the prototype.

The first step, they say, is making sure that everyone realizes, the way they did, what the stakes are.

“I think that once the community invests in it personally you take a greater interest in it,” Watson said.

Arbogast knows the non-addicted population is key to addressing the problem.

“We as a community need to recognize that addiction is a chronic disease,” she said. “In terms of treatment, in terms of recurrence, it’s similar to heart disease. It’s similar to diabetes. We’re not punitive toward a diabetic who had a piece of cake. The stigma that so many of our people face in trying to get help is so great. We need to be there when they say ‘I’m on my feet again, I need a second chance.’ ”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce