By Jordyn Grzelewski
Most nights, Jen would quietly creep down to her son’s basement bedroom to watch him sleep.
Her nighttime vigils were born out of fear – fear that Adam’s respiratory system would shut down, robbing him of his ability to breathe, silently killing him in his sleep just a floor below her own bedroom where she often lay awake, picturing grim funeral scenes and praying for answers.
It’s a fear that she has lived with for the last five years, while Adam has abused opioids such as painkillers and heroin.
Today, however, Jen’s fear is gone. Seated on the couch of her cozy Youngstown home, her newfound peace radiates through the dimly-lit living room.
“I sleep at night now. I didn’t sleep, for a long time,” she said.
What’s changed is that Adam is now in a California rehab center for a 90-day treatment program, thanks to a $50,000 scholarship that he obtained with the help of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, a national non-profit organization that supports local police departments’ work with opioid addicts.
The real names of Jen and Adam have been changed, at their request. Jen shared her family’s story with The Vindicator in hopes that it would help someone else, and because she’s part of a push to bring PAARI to the Youngstown area.
On March 6, Leonard Campanello, police chief in Gloucester, Mass., posted this message to the department’s Facebook page: “Since January of this year, we have responded to dozens of opiate-related overdoses and, unfortunately, the City has seen 4 deaths in this time that are heroin-related. While we have been successful in our use of nasal Narcan and have saved lives, 4 deaths is 4 too many.”
“If you are a user of opiates or heroin, let us help you. We know you do not want this addiction,” the post continued. “We have resources here in the City that can and will make a difference in your life. Do not become a statistic.”
Then, starting in June, the Gloucester Police Department enacted a new policy, that Campanello detailed in a Facebook post that to date has been shared more than 30,000 times: Addicts can surrender their drugs and drug-paraphernalia to police, ask for help, and receive assistance in getting clean. Those who seek out help will have amnesty from criminal charges.
“Every life has meaning and in public safety the only question is whether or not we have the means to save a life,” Campanello wrote. “We at Gloucester Police Department believe in second chances, and third chances, and in starting over. ... Addiction is not a crime.”
In the ensuing months, Gloucester PD began to connect addicts with free treatment options and launched PAARI, garnering national media attention along the way and chronicling its ongoing efforts in frequent social media posts.
Roughly 260 people had been placed in treatment through the Gloucester program, according to an Oct. 23 release. Gloucester PD also tentatively reports a drop in crimes that often are related to drug use (such as shoplifting) and modest cost-savings due to fewer arrests.
Thirty-plus police departments in states throughout the country now have joined PAARI, according to the organization’s website. The goal, according to the organization’s mission statement, is to shift law enforcement focus from the supply of drugs to the demand for them.
Police departments that join PAARI encourage addicts to seek recovery, help distribute overdose antidotes and link addicts with treatment programs.
Recovery didn’t come easily for Nicole Walmsley — but dope did.
“You can go to any gas station. You can go to any corner store to score dope. It should be just as easy to get into rehab,” said the 30-year-old from Medina, who elicits a brash, positive energy.
Walmsley, who now has been clean for two years and counting, got her second chance at life in Youngstown after spending most of her 20s hooked on painkillers and heroin; she credits the late Judge James C. Evans of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court with giving her a chance by sending her to Community Corrections Association Inc.
Now, Walmsley is on a mission: to bring PAARI to the area where she got her fresh start.
She’s leading the push to bring the organization to police departments in Ohio. In September, she hosted the first “Walk Against Heroin” in Youngstown, at which Campanello was the keynote speaker. On Nov. 14, she will host another walk in Niles, and in December she will travel to Massachusetts for training on the Gloucester model.
“We are very actively trying to get Youngstown and other places in Ohio to partner with us,” said Gloucester PD spokesman John Guilfoil. “We’re finally beginning to see that there’s a reduction in crime at police departments that target addiction from a recovery perspective, and not just a law-enforcement perspective.”
“There are real lives at stake,” he said. “We are very excited to add partners from Ohio.”
In recent weeks, Walmsley had meetings with local law- enforcement officials to try to persuade them to sign on with the organization.
“My goal is to make treatment as available as it is to get dope, because it wasn’t available when I was ready to quit,” Walmsley said. “I know change is possible, because I did it. And I see other people doing it.”
Driving around last month, Adam was stopped by a police officer.
The issue was innocuous; his license-plate light was out.
What happened during that stop, however, would prove to be life-saving, his mother says.
Riding in that same police car that stopped Adam was Walmsley. As part of her outreach to local police departments, she was doing ride-alongs with some of them.
Talking with Adam as he stood near the police cruiser, she bluntly asked if he was an addict; something in his eyes, she said, told her that he was.
Admitting that he was, Adam told her that he needed help. She was at his house later that night, promising she would do everything in her power to get him into treatment.
Adam previously did one other stint in rehab; he left after 15 days, persuading his mother to pick him up by saying he had gotten kicked out when in reality he had checked out voluntarily.
Over the years – as Jen describes it – he halfheartedly sought help, but never went through with it due to long wait lists at area treatment centers, prohibitive costs, and his own lack of follow-through. Now, however, Jen believes that Walmsley – who she calls her son’s “guardian angel” – entered the picture at just the right time.
“I think she saved his life. He was dying,” Jen said. “He told me, probably for a whole month, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore.’
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get you help.’”
Later this month, Jen and her daughter are going to visit Adam in California. In December, he’ll finish the program, but his mother hopes that he won’t come home right away. She worries that he might be drawn back into his old life.