26 May A year of offering hope – News – The Progress-Index
City of Refuge recovery program marks first anniversary by graduating largest class to date
HOPEWELL – Among countless stories of loss and sorrow comes a buoy of hope against the opioid epidemic. City of Refuge, a Hopewell-based recovery center, celebrated one year of operations this month by graduating its largest class of 11 recoverees at City Point Restoration Church of God.
Its first class in May 2018 started with four participants, but graduated two. The second program also graduated two. After swelling numbers in the most recent class, City of Refuge has 30 people signed up for its next session.
The program sees its success by using “tough love,” forcing participants into confronting the emotional and personal issues that cause addiction.
Peer Leader Darchie Lewis is known for putting participants on the “hot seat” at meetings. Whomever sits on the hot seat is grilled by their peer leader and other recoverees about the decisions and attitudes that landed them in recovery.
At the beginning of the program, Lewis asks participants why they came to recovery. They often respond that they were forced, with a number of the program’s participants being mandated by court to attend a recovery program.
“When they first get there, they’re really gung ho and cocky, so we put them on the hot seat. We put them in the ring and we smother them with love,” Lewis said. “When they come and sit in the hot seat and I drill them, they get out of the hot seat and they get a little anger. But then one of their peers says ‘Hey, D got you, he loves you. He’s going to get you right.’”
As a recovering addict himself, Lewis’ experience with overcoming addiction plays a crucial role in building trust with the program’s participants. Standing about 5’9” and weighing 215 pounds, Lewis shows participants a picture of himself before recovery, when he weighed just 90 pounds.
“They say ‘What? There’s no way that’s you,’” Lewis said. “The trick of it is to admit we’re powerless.”
Most of the program’s participants experience opioid addiction, with a few having crack-cocaine dependency. The opioid crisis was declared a national emergency in 2017, after two years of rising opioid use saw more than 110,000 Americans lose their lives to the substance.
Opioid deaths came to Virginia, where the overdose mortality rate started climbing in 2015, with the popularized use of Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid-like drug. Fentanyl is 50-100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is often cut with drugs like heroin to increase its euphoric affects.
Virginia deaths related to prescriptions like OxyContin or Vicodin stayed about the same from 2011 to 2017, while the mortality rate from Fentanyl and heroin skyrocketed, rising from 153 to 938, according to statistics from the Virginia Department of Health.
Hopewell’s mortality rates are even more severe than those across the state, with the total deaths rising from zero reported cases in 2011 to 13 deaths in 2017. Hopewell adults between the ages of 35 and 44 were six times more likely to die from a fentanyl overdose than others of the same age group in the rest of the state.
Only six Hopewell citizens were admitted to emergency care for Fentanyl overdoses that year while nine total died from fentanyl/heroine. Fifty-six Hopewell residents were admitted for prescription opioid overdoses, and four died from prescription opioids in 2017.
VDH statistics for 2018 are still being completed, but early stages show a positive trend with overall opioid deaths decreasing at the state level.
City of Refuge graduate Jamison Washington started the recovery program after a friend told him that it would help with his court cases. Washington had previously been incarcerated three different times for a little over three years of total time.
“I’ve been to numerous recovery programs. None had given me the outcome this one had. I know it’s because of the personal relationships they built with me,” Washington said. “The drugs are only 10% of the problem, the lifestyle is the other. The core issues are the main problem. The drugs are just a way I try to solve them or run from the problems. I didn’t know how to deal with life when life turns.”
Washington first attempted to recover in 2011 at a different rehab program. Eight years later, he said he finally feels like he’s doing the right thing.
“I feel very accomplished, like I did something positive. I did graduate high school but I haven’t ever done anything that was too positive,” he said.
After graduation from the City of Refuge recovery program, Washington says he’s looking for “peace of mind.” At the onset of the program, he says he had a tremendous struggle with anger that he’s learned to control.
“I can’t fix every problem. Now, I change the things I can, but don’t worry about the things I can’t,” he added.
City of Refuge operates with two paid positions and 11 volunteers, all have experience with addiction, whether that be personal or witnessing a close family member.
Director of Operations and Peer Specialist Jennifer Baker lost her husband, father and mother-in-law to opioid addiction. After losing her husband in 2013, she says she spiraled out of control with her own addiction to opioids.
“At my mother-in-law’s funeral, my son stood up and said ‘I only had three pieces of my heart to give away and God took two of them, I only have my mom,” Baker said. “I got help the next day and haven’t looked back.’
She has since celebrated three years of sobriety.
Baker admits that they started City of Refuge with little knowledge of what they were doing, but gradually grew as they learned their way through the process. They recently partnered with Richmond-based recovery groups Robin’s Hope and Atlantic Outreach to collaborate and increase the effectiveness of their curriculum.
The next steps for City of Refuge involve more collaboration with surrounding groups, and achieving more grant funding, as classes are expected to grow in the coming sessions. They are already expecting to split the one class into two, with the next class of 30.
The program also offers help with challenges like job-hunting and cooking.
With the number of deaths statewide and across the country, Baker’s mission is stark, as explained in the starfish story she told at the most recent graduation.
A man happened upon a boy throwing starfish into the ocean. He asked the boy why he was doing it. The boy said he had to save them because the tide was low and otherwise they’d die.
“[The man] said well there’s miles and miles of shore. There’s no way you can save all of them,” Baker recounted. “The little boy bent down and tossed another starfish into the ocean and said, ‘Yeah, but I made a difference to that one.’”
Sean Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804-722-5172.