Nicole Brantner doesn’t like to admit it, but the Portage County court system saved her life.
Originally from Rootstown, Brantner started using drugs as a teenager. She had been incarcerated at least 18 times, was arrested for trafficking heroin and ended up on felony probation.
“I finally turned myself in, did 18 months, and finally got clean through the courts and probation department. My probation officer held me accountable for at least five years and that kept me clean and I could succeed,” Brantner said. “So now we come back to give back from the community that I took from in my addiction.”
For nearly two months, Brantner and Ashley Rosser, both of whom now work for recovery nonprofits, have been organizing drive-thru resource fairs focused on harm reduction, recovery and treatment on a near-weekly basis in the parking lot shared by what will soon be the Haven of Portage County and the community center of Open United Recovery (OUR) Place on Route 59 in Ravenna.
For three hours on Wednesday afternoon, people could drive up to different tents and receive hygiene bags, fresh produce and meal bags, all for free, while also getting information about different treatments, peer support and transportation services. They could also pick up Narcan to treat overdoses, fentanyl test strips, drug deactivation kits and harm reduction supplies including clean tourniquets, cookers, cotton swabs and sterile water.
Forty-one cars went through the tents, and the event ended a half-hour early because they ran out of supplies. Rosser said that is typical for their events, which have also been held in Lodi and Akron and will soon be held in Cuyahoga County. They are also hoping to expand to Geauga and Lake counties.
“The whole idea is we’re trying to find the hardest-hit communities with the most difficult access,” Rosser said. “They stop by and they can leave with contacts, resources for sober homes and peer support and all this stuff. We need to reach people, especially during the coronavirus.”
Jessika Easterling, executive director for OUR Place, said that almost immediately after Ohio shut down to slow the spread of coronavirus, she started to see an increase in relapses, overdoses and suicides, and saw many more community members struggling and reaching out for help. Dan Pew, director of community outreach for Parkman Recovery Center said his organization also saw an increase in calls almost immediately.
“The pandemic actually robbed us of our meetings since we weren’t allowed to gather. Community resources were taken away. Then they isolated a lot of us. They took their jobs and then sent them a check. The media isn’t telling that a lot of addicts relapsed, OD’d, died, committed suicide and we were hit with Percocet 30s that were fake and laced with fentanyl and carfentanyl,” Brantner said.
OUR Place and other peer support groups tried holding Zoom support meetings, but Easterling said they weren’t good enough for many.
“This was such an identified need. We got guidelines from the health commissioner and had limited numbers, sign-ups and PPE. We started holding in-person meetings again” she said.
As Rosser saw overdoses increase, she said she felt she had to do more. She already had a connection with Harm Reduction Ohio, through which she was able to get free Narcan and partnered with Brantner, who is the president of Project Worth Saving.
″[Brantner] brought Safe Passages to Ohio and has contacts we needed, so it snowballed from there. It was supposed to just be us handing out Narcan, but then it turned into other entities wanting to work with us and provide resources for recovery,” Rosser said.
Wednesday’s event included OUR Place, Parkman Recovery Center, the Haven of Portage County, Harm Reduction Ohio, On Demand Counseling, relink.org, thrive peer support and Homeless Hookup CLE.
“The beautiful thing is now that we’ve gotten this started together with [Brantner and Rosser], we’re now able to as a partner organization to sustain this, and they can continue to spread outreach in other communities,” said Easterling. “We’re really excited about that.”
The next drive-thru outreach will be held on July 15 from noon to 3 p.m. at 2645 Route 59 in Ravenna