Volunteers help fight Opioid Epidemic, despite funding concerns

The Litchfield County Opiate Task Force is associated with the McCall Center for Behavioral Health in Torrington, Connecticut. Image provided by McCall Center for Behavioral Health.

By Gino De Angelis

In its effort to help addicted residents, Litchfield County Opioid Task Force is grappling with finding the right staff to do the job.

Government grants and funds are low and run out, and city governments can only hire so many people. This is where private and volunteer organizations come in.

“My role is to help facilitate a lot of the conversations, help facilitate and orchestrate a lot of our programs, and to keep the ball rolling on a lot of things,” said Lauren Pristo, network coordinator for the Litchfield County Opioid Task Force,

Pristo said. “Because the task force is fully volunteer based other than my position.”

Lauren Pristo is the Network Coordinator for the Litchfield County Opioid Task Force, which has provided services to communities like Waterbury to help fight the opioid epidemic since 2013. Pristo’s position, meanwhile, was created in 2018.

She said that the organization started noticing community members suffering fatal overdoses around the time fentanyl started spreading.

“The McCall Center for Behavioral Health joined forces with Charlotte Hungerford Hospital to start this community conversation around it, which turned into, now, many years of action,” Pristo said.

The task force has many programs both active and being developed to help the Litchfield County community, Pristo said. These include an online resource guide to give information on the epidemic to both professionals and those suffering, as well as the rover program, which the task force adapted from the Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition.

“The rover is a mobile tool box of harm reduction supplies,” Pristo said. “We started off with one and now we have eight rovers, so we have eight of those toolboxes out in the community bringing things like Narcan and syringe exchange to different areas around the county, one of which includes Waterbury.”

Narcan is used to save the lives of people going through an opioid overdose, while syringe exchanges prevent the spread of diseases, including HIV, among users. Pristo said these two programs are two of the most effective when it comes to public health and the opioid crisis, and that the rover continued to work during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The task force has regular meetings where volunteers and other partners share stories about their current work, as well as reports from different agencies and project reviews.

“This [July] we discussed the implications of the legalization if recreational marijuana on addiction treatment specifically,” Pristo said.

Pristo also said that the members of the task force work on a volunteer basis, giving their time to combat the opioid epidemic in various ways, including the rover, as well as awareness campaigns and yearly vigils.

“Helping to staff the rover, helping to provide supplies to participants of that program, [they all do] things like that,” Pristo said.

The work of these private volunteers can even have an impact on publicly funded groups. Aisling McGuckin, the new director of public health at the Waterbury Health Department, said she and her team aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel but have actually looked at what others have done in the past in an effort to expand upon their strategies.

“If there’s something that is another opportunity for us to get involved with, or another way to work creatively against the epidemic,” McGuckin said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to go after funding for that purpose, or to redirect resources towards those efforts.”

However, McGuckin and those in the health department have access to something that organizations like Pristo’s don’t: public funding.

“The way our projects are funded is very patchworky,” Pristo said. “Each one of our projects is a combination of state dollars, private philanthropy, hopefully federal dollars.”

Pristo says the main issue is that there is not enough sustainable funding for these private centers and organizations. Kathy Maness, who worked with the Litchfield County Opiate Task Force, echoed this sentiment. According to Maness the grant the task force had to pay the the salaries of Peer Recovery Navigators, who assist those in recovery, ran out on June 30th. The PRNs were then laid off, and there has not been a replacement for their role.

“The issue is that we don’t have sustainable funding from our state and federal partners,” Pristo said. “We’ve had some federal grants here not related to the work of task force, but in prevention, where they weren’t continued but it’s a big loss.”

Organizations like the task force are always looking for new sources of revenue, be it from private philanthropy or government grants.

“Until we have that fixed, line item funding for treatment of some of our most vulnerable populations,” Pristo said. “Until we have that consistent funding we’re always going to be in a losing game when it comes to money and getting these programs and keeping these programs.”

However, it’s not all bad news. Pristo says that some of their funders have been extremely helpful in getting money to programs and keeping the task force afloat.

“They’ve been excellent partners with community organizations, working with them and really making sure they listen to the communities and what their priorities are, and choosing to fund what is a priority to them and not to [the organizations],” Pristo said.

However, these partners also have funding issues, according to Pristo. “They’re not sustainably funded, they’re all grant funded,” she said.

She said that the one of the immediate goals of the task force is to get a consistent source of funding so no programs or positions have to be postponed or discontinued all together, including her own position, which is also grant funded.

“We were funded through the Foundation for Community Health for my role, but that only went for two and a half years,” Pristo said. “So now we’re trying to apply for different grants to try and keep my role around, to keep the work going.”

She gave examples of other positions funded by private money that only lasts temporarily, and that it’s a race to line up a new revenue source before the current one runs out.

“So the second you get the money, it’s like, ‘Great!’ but you have to start thinking about how you’re going to keep that money coming in,” Pristo said.