Wells River reflects on changes since launch of 302 Cares group

  • Peggy Hewes, left, the librarian at Wells River’s Baldwin Memorial Library and a member of the community coalition in Wells River, Vt., works at the library on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. Working with her is volunteer Barbara Zimmer, along with Zimmer's dog Ruby. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Sitting along Main St. in Wells River, Vt., on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, Salena Stewart, of Groton, Vt., is a nurse and has helped to organize a weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting at the Woodsville Methodist Church. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Larry Hart Sr., of Topsham, Vt., eats lunch with his partner Emily Waterman at her home in Fairlee, Vt., on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. Hart's daughter Tasha Hart died of an overdose in 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Tammy Lindquist, of Woodsville, N.H., picks her grandson, Tucker Fellows, 6, of Wells River, Vt., up at the bus stop after school in Wells River on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. Lindquist said she has had family members effected by drugs, they are now in recovery. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Carol Wilber, of Wells River, Vt., decorates her porch with Christmas lights on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019 in Wells River. Wilber had her purse stolen from her car over the summer. The purse was recovered but the money in it was gone. From the apartment she shares with her husband she sometimes sees strangers in a nearby parking lot that she suspects may be involved in illegal activities. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Tasha Hart in 2016, she died of an overdose that year. (family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/23/2019 10:02:13 PM
Modified: 11/25/2019 4:39:23 PM

WELLS RIVER — The streets are quiet, and although gas is still being stolen from vehicles at a Railroad Street car dealership, other thefts seem to have declined three years after about 100 people first crowded together in the village garage to address drug-related crime and overdose deaths.

Since that 2016 forum, a community coalition — named 302 Cares for the state highway that runs through the village — has launched new programs, bringing together health care providers, school and municipal officials, and local business owners.

“I would say that things feel quiet and look quiet, which is a good thing,” said Peggy Hewes, the librarian at Wells River’s Baldwin Memorial Library and a member of the coalition. “It doesn’t mean the problem’s gone away.”

In the time since that initial community gathering, state police have increased their presence, the Little Rivers Health Care clinic on Main Street has increased the number of patients who receive medication-assisted treatment, a Narcotics Anonymous group that meets weekly in nearby Woodsville has grown, and a new wellness hall opened recently, offering classes on managing chronic pain and disease, as well as yoga, tai chi and massage therapy.

Statewide, Vermont saw 79 opioid-related deaths through September of this year, according to the Vermont Department of Health. That’s down from 83 for the same time period last year. There were no opioid-related deaths in Orange County through September of this year. There were three in 2018.

Despite this progress — which is due at least in part to increased availability of the overdose reversal drug naloxone (also known by the brand name Narcan) — Wells River residents acknowledge that addiction is still present. The death statistics show that fewer people are dying of the disease, not how many are still living with it.

The Wells River Board of Trustees has worked with the Vermont State Police to increase patrols of the village, board member Don Waterman said. But the state police don’t always have the capacity to spend more time in Wells River, a village of fewer than 400 people in the town of Newbury, Vt.

“When they’re fully staffed, (we) see more police coverage,” Waterman said.

At Wells River Chevrolet, General Sales Manager John Gilmour said crime seems to be down a bit from what it was in 2016, when such items as car emblems and even tailgates disappeared. He credited the increased police presence and a new surveillance system that the dealership put in to cut down on thefts.

The community “must be doing something right,” Gilmour said.

Orange County State’s Attorney Will Porter confirmed that property-related crimes such as burglaries that prosecutors “assumed (or) guessed” were related to addiction have decreased in the past year or so after a previous spike.

Support in recovery

Access to drugs within the greater Wells River community has become more difficult in recent years, said Groton, Vt.-resident Salena Stewart, who in January will mark four years of recovery from a heroin and crack addiction. She said that is because the bigger dealers in the area are now incarcerated.

Even so, Stewart, a 32-year-old nurse who helped to organize a weekly NA meeting at the Woodsville Methodist Church beginning in early 2016, said, “Drug dealing is still a big thing right out in the open. … It is still happening.”

While the NA meeting, which she organized with her cousin and two other friends who are also in recovery, has been “great” and is “still attracting people,” Stewart said she’s not sure that medication-assisted therapy is helping because she thinks some of the buprenorphine (also known by the brand name Suboxone) that people get from Little Rivers providers to curb their opioid cravings ends up being sold on the street.

Medication-assisted treatment aims to relieve withdrawal symptoms and cravings through “a safe and controlled level of medication,” which has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The medications are intended to be prescribed by a health care provider in conjunction with counseling and behavioral therapies.

Mariah Coulstring, who leads the Haverhill Area Substance Misuse Prevention Coalition, the Wells River coalition’s counterpart and partner across the Connecticut River, acknowledged that some of the drugs prescribed through medication-assisted treatment may be diverted to the black market, but she said that doesn’t negate the value of the program for some.

“If somebody’s in recovery, we support whatever somebody needs for them,” Coulstring said.

Another persistent challenge is stigma surrounding addiction, Stewart said. Some people who are still in active addiction struggle to get the help they need when they are ready for it due to the stigma.

“That is still out there,” she said.

That’s something Stewart said she hopes will change with time. She credits her own recovery to family support, therapy, a good relationship with her primary care provider and peer support through meetings.

“I used to be ashamed,” she said. But “when I got clean, I had a sense of pride.”

It’s resiliency like Stewart’s that the community coalition is aiming to build across the community.

“Human beings have the ability to adapt,” Michael Brandli, assistant director of behavioral health for the Bradford, Vt.-based Little Rivers Health Care, said during a 302 Cares forum earlier this month.

There are several factors including poverty and feeling disconnected from others that can increase people’s risk of developing unhealthy coping strategies such as an addiction, whether it be to opioids, alcohol or other drugs, overeating, or gambling, Brandli said.

“If we have unhealthy coping strategies (it can be) harder and harder to bounce back” from any trauma, whether it be the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster, Brandli said.

But, Brandli emphasized, having an unhealthy coping strategy isn’t a “moral failing” and there are ways of healing through education, building community connections, mentoring, restricting access to unhealthy substances and increasing access to treatment. Since 2016, Little Rivers has increased the number of patients receiving medication-assisted treatment sixfold, from under 10 to as many as 60 at a given time, Brandli said.

Helping and healing

Healing for Larry Hart Sr. — whose daughter’s death by overdose was one of the catalysts for the initial forum in 2016 — is taking the form of helping others. Hart recently made a career move, aiming to become a recovery coach to help prevent others from his daughter Tasha Hart’s fate.

The 2006 graduate of Wells River’s Blue Mountain Union School died of an overdose at the age of 28 in November 2016, when she was eight-months pregnant with her third child.

“I’m not going to fib,” Hart said. “I can’t save Tasha because she’s gone (but I) might be able to save someone else.”

It has not been an easy few years, as he’s navigated his grief over his daughter’s death, Hart said. He’s gone through stages including tears and anger before ending up where he is now.

The 55-year-old Hart moved back to Topsham in September, has become a life coach, sold Randolph Auto & Truck Supply to Sanel NAPA earlier this month and plans to train to become a recovery coach in December. This brings him back to working with young people as he had initially intended when he studied to become a teacher in college before dropping out.

For now, Hart said his work as a life coach involves asking enough questions to help people “find their own path.”

The community coalition is also focused on helping young people and their families to develop healthy coping skills.

“As a school ourselves, we cannot take on all of the issues that our children are taking into our schools,” said John Barone, co-principal of Blue Mountain, during the recent forum.

When children aren’t healthy and don’t have enough to eat, they’re “not going to learn,” Barone said.

Therapists from Little Rivers spend time in Blue Mountain, helping to care for students there, Barone said. The School Board is currently mulling the idea of universal meals, free meals for all students regardless of income.

The school also hosted a wellness fair in the spring that included yoga, tai chi and a smoothie bike, said Kelsey Root-Winchester, a parent and School Board member who co-owns Wells River Wellness Hall, which opened late last year.

Among the Wellness Hall’s offerings has been a free, grant-funded course on youth mental health first aid, which Root-Winchester said she thinks will help to address the community’s addiction issues.

“Mental health is really the best prevention for substance misuse,” she said.

To better support those in recovery, Stewart said she’d like the community to find a way to develop a recovery center where people who are struggling with addiction could go to attend meetings and access resources.

When she was in active addiction, Stewart said, she did not want help and so she wouldn’t have been able to ask for it.

“For myself, I really never even thought 30 days was possible; let alone four years,” she said.

Having a recovery center would give people still in active addiction a place to go where they could “see other people in recovery.”

Stewart said she wasn’t yet aware of the offerings of the new Wellness Hall, but she was interested in the offerings. She said that while meditation doesn’t work for her, it might work for someone else. She finds comfort in meetings with peers, while her boyfriend has found relief in church, she said.

“Everybody is different in their recovery,” she said.

Hewes, the village librarian who often hosts groups of children at the library after school, said she would like to see the coalition develop a mentorship program at the school to offer role models and healthy activities for kids who may not have them otherwise.

“I think that might be a key achievement,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.


Salena Stewart helped organize a weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting at the Woodsville Methodist Church in Woodsville, N.H. An earlier photo caption with this story gave an incorrect location for the meetings.

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