As told to NCACH’s Communications and Engagement Manager, Sahara Suval:
Going upstream of addiction is arduous work. Like Sisyphus rolling the boulder for eternity, one must tread against the current – heaving and pushing – and hoping for a breakthrough. And then, a call or story breaks that yet another life has been taken too soon by the opioid epidemic – the boulder breaks free and comes crashing down again.
For Americorps volunteer, Keith Madsen, one of Chelan-Douglas Community Action Council’s (CDCAC) first Opioid Outreach Coordinators, this signals the time to roll up one’s sleeves and get back to pushing that boulder. “People need to be heard on these issues. People do die here in Wenatchee [from opioids], and we aren’t hearing from their families.” Yet, as Keith and Jessica Lara, CDCAC’s Americorps Program Director inform me, the per capita rate of opioid addiction is higher in rural areas than urban areas.
Keith, 69, a retired minister for 42 years, relocated to Wenatchee to be closer to family. While here, he started looking for part time work and found the position to serve with CDCAC as their Opioid Outreach Coordinator. “I feel that [this position] is giving me the opportunity to make a difference.”
(Photo – Keith Madsen, Chelan-Douglas Community Action Council’s first Opioid Outreach Coordinator Americorps volunteer. Photo provided by CDCAC.)
In response to the opioid crisis sweeping the nation, Americorps has recently added “addressing the opioid epidemic” as one of the priorities on their national agenda. What that looks like, however, is up to each of the communities who bring on opioid-focused Americorps volunteer positions. With funding support from North Central Accountable Community of Health’s Rapid Cycle Opioid Projects, Keith is one of the region’s first Americorps volunteers with a core mission to focus on reducing opioid addiction and stigma across North Central Washington. “We don’t really know what the long term impact [of Keith’s position] is at this point,” says Jessica, “what we do know is that it’s important to get this information out there.”
And, getting the information out there is exactly what Keith aims to do.
“Here’s some of what I have been working on,” says Keith, as he hands me a sheath of papers. In the pages I see outlines of presentations, an exhaustive contact and correspondence list of partners Keith has been reaching out to since he assumed this position, and a final document, a resource list that Keith has compiled. I thumb through the resource list, and it’s clear that Keith has done his homework. Titles of documentaries, peer-reviewed papers, books, news articles, and evidence-based studies stare back at me – five pages of listed resources in all.
A core component of Keith’s position is to give presentations to groups of local youth, ages 10 – 24. To date, Keith has presented at Chelan High School and Waterville High School, with plans to do more in the works. The presentations, Keith says, are leaving an impact. “I can tell [the students] are grappling with these issues. Which to me, is very important.”
(Photo – Keith speaks with a community member about his work at a local resource fair. Photo provided by CDCAC.)
Keith hopes that his presentations will help students understand that they are able to be in charge of their own health, as well as to reframe perceptions on pain and appropriate medication usage. He discusses the physiology of opioids on the brain with students, as well as heavier topics, like loss and the devastation that addiction can cause. Through this work, Keith is also working to address and reduce the stigma of addiction. “[The] opioid epidemic has no boundaries – it doesn’t see race, income, or culture,” comments Jessica.
Indeed, both Keith and Jessica have personal experience with loved ones and opioid addiction, including the untimely loss of a nephew at 22 years old. The conversation turns to stigma and its impact on the response to opioid crisis. “How can you mourn a loved one when the stigma [of addiction] is so great that you can’t even talk about it?” asks Keith. He shares that he has had difficulty engaging people who have lost someone to opioid addiction in his work to share information with the community. He believes it is, in part, due to the stigma that surrounds addiction, and that a secondary goal of upstream work should be to make sure that those affected by the opioid crisis have the chance to be heard. “Drug overdose deaths have been ignored [in our society] for a long time,” he says. “Addiction is a beast. It does not define who you are… Society needs a paradigm shift to happen so that people can heal and recover,” adds Jessica. Above all, Keith wants people to know that there is hope.
At this point, Keith’s presentations have already reached over 100 local students, and he’s not done yet. He has a goal of reaching 500 (or more) students during his tenure with CDCAC, which includes youth clubs, sports teams, and community groups. He hopes to create a system that is better able to support families struggling with addiction, as well as a network of prevention measures. He is asking all local area agencies that work with youth to consider partnering with CDCAC on this effort.
If you or someone you know works with youth and would be interested in hosting Keith at an event, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-662-6156
To learn more about North Central Accountable Community of Health’s Opioid Project, please visit https://ncach.org/opioid-project
Many thanks to Keith Madsen, Jessica Lara, and Karen Bruggman of Chelan-Douglas Community Action Council for their time and for sharing their stories.