Lori Erion, founder and executive director of Families of Addicts, a grassroots advocacy and support group that works closely with families dealing with addiction issues in five Ohio counties. CONTRIBUTED

Families of Addicts founder: Dayton turned crisis into success story

Dayton Daily News: So, what’s the latest with FOA, and what you’re seeing with the people you serve?

Lori Erion: Our attendance at meetings did drop off mid-last year, from like 100 people weekly in Dayton to maybe 60 to 80. It dropped off at our other sites, too. Then in the last few weeks it was back up to 100 — which is interesting, but I’m not sure why. I initially thought things were leveling off because not as many people were dying.

DDN: Let’s talk about that reduction in local overdose deaths. It’s pretty remarkable. Why do you think it’s happened?

Erion: Well first, make no mistake — people are still addicted, and people are still in crisis every day. I still hear about people overdosing on a weekly basis. But yes, the numbers are down, and meth seems to be the new thing. There is still fentenyl-laced stuff out there, and some people are still using fentenyl like heroin, so even though the numbers are down and it’s obviously better, we are still having tragedies. The positive upswing is, I’m meeting more people in recovery. Maybe more people are recovering — that’s what we’ve all been hoping for.

RELATED: Dayton cut overdose deaths in half — and learned these lessons to prevent another crisis

There is more access to treatment now, a lot more treatment options … not always, but it’s a lot better than it was. The courts, judges and law enforcement are on board for treatment instead of prison. Narcan infiltrated our county and communities. And COAT, the Community Overdose Action Team, educated officers and first responders into adopting and using Narcan. Not everybody is on board with saving somebody 10 times, but I think the COAT initiative helped people see the need — so that means we’re able to save a lot of people, and give a lot of people a second chance.

DDN: So, an entire community response.

Erion: Right. The needle exchange program is helping people get connected to resources and is hopefully minimizing all the diseases that result from IV drug use. Also key is Medicaid expansion and hopefully its continued expansion. Let’s not forget our front-line, in-the-trenches people like FOA, Dayton Recovers, all our sober livings and all the support groups. We’ve worked hard at reducing the stigma, which has always been a main thing for me. At the end of day, there has been a lot of collaboration, conversations and action — and that can be applied to any further community issues that come about, right?

DDN: What you’re describing is, in the last three years or so, a sea change on this issue. Are you surprised it happened?

Erion: I don’t think I’m surprised. I think FOA and myself were the pioneers in bringing this to the public’s attention early on. I started five years ago when I started seeing videos of a father who’d lost his child to an overdose, and we really weren’t broadly talking about it then. That’s when I asked my daughter, April, if it was OK with her to share our story, and she was. So we did. So FOA got going — we had our first meeting in 2013 — and when COAT came about, there were billboards up, advertising all over — and it got other people talking about it, too. Now public officials are coming here from elsewhere to learn what is is we’re doing here, and our community is educating them on the process Dayton used to get from Ground Zero to where we are today.

 

DDN: It seems the community was in a how-low-can-you-go situation.

Erion: Well, yes — very quickly, we were nationally labeled Ground Zero for the epidemic, and of course lots and lots of bad connotations came with that. So you ask yourself: Is that what you want your community to be known by? So we basically had to address it – there were lots of people dying and we had to correct it. We really had to do something. It was already being talked about, so the city had to find a way to turn it into a success story. And I think we accomplished that.

DDN: You’ve always gotten a lot of calls from national media who want to cover Dayton’s problem. Have the kind of requests you get changed?

Erion: Yes. Before, it was all about us being Ground Zero for the crisis, and what that was like. Now they want to know what we did to reduce the number of overdose deaths by 48 percent. That’s great. I love that now they’re less interested in presenting drama and more interested in what we’re doing about it.

DDN: So where do you see yourself and FOA fitting into that accomplishment?

Erion: To me, it’s a miracle to watch a mother, a family come to our meeting completely broken, coming to FOA as a last resort — frustrated, hopeless, terrified, angry. They walk into our meeting most likely overwhelmed, because they see 60 to 100 people there who are relatively happy; they may be thinking, am I in the right meeting? But what they are experiencing is what healing and hope look like. It takes on average three meetings to come in smiling, hugging, feeling hopeful again … feeling normal like this problem is not just us — not feeling isolated and alone anymore, feeling connected to something bigger, a solutions-based organization. And then so many of them end up being the biggest advocates and helpers of other families who need support. And that’s how it happens. That’s the miracle of it. In a survey we did, 77 percent of the families we worked with said the best thing for them was giving back.

DDN: That’s nice to hear.

Erion: I think that is why we continue to get the large number of calls for help that we do. I got 400 calls last year, 400 the year before.

DDN: People just cold calling your cell, looking for help or information?

Erion: Yes.

DDN: That seems like a huge burden. How do you handle that?

Erion: I handle it because I know what it’s like. Families don’t know where to turn – this is part of the problem for people. We have all these resources, but still not everybody knows about them. Maybe it’s a family that didn’t see this coming, so wasn’t paying attention before. Maybe it’s somebody who’s afraid of stigma, and wonders if they’ll be on some list somewhere. FOA is out there front and center letting people know what we do. If I can take the call, I do.

DDN: What’s new or upcoming with FOA, moving forward?

Erion: We’re in the process of developing the FOA Navigator Network — a team of four people who will do what I do, so that not all the phone calls are coming to me. We will have a campaign to roll out the number. We’ll refer to a resource database, but we will help through cultivating and developing new relationships with people who call us. And we’ll be able to follow up with people better.

RELATED: 3 things I learned covering the opioid crisis in Dayton

We also have a new executive director, Anita Kitchen, who started Oct. 1. She’s helping a lot, especially from a sustainability standpoint. Our 2019 budget will be $165,000, from a lot of different sources — corporate donations, sponsorship for our annual Rally 4 Recovery, some grants. That’s what we need to raise this year, to do everything we want to do, everything it takes to run FOA, deliver our mission and add on the Navigator Network. And we’re putting together an advisory board to help with strategic planning. Also, expansion is always on my mind. I get asked several times a week from all over the U.S. about starting FOA in their community. It’s sad that so many people still don’t have what they need. We’re talking to a national organization, Facing Addiction, to see if they can help us with expanding.

Also, our next Rally 4 Recovery is Aug. 25, 3-6 p.m. on Courthouse Square. Last year we had 3,000 people plus, and 63 resources on hand. It’s a big deal, and people get so excited to see themselves in the big picture we take of everyone there. They get on fire for it, it amazes me. If anyone wants to sponsor or be involved, call me or Anita.

DDN: Are you feeling good about things, then?

Erion: Yes. I feel like there are a lot of opportunities for us to grow, to continue helping. So many that we need to focus on what it is that we do best and stay focused. But I feel really good about things. As a non-profit, we’re in really good shape. Been a real learning curve for me … but I feel good about the team we have, and that we consistently deliver our mission. I have to give credit to our endless hours from volunteers — last year, we had 234 volunteers give over 12,000 hours. I have to thank my board past and present, and our committed donors. Nothing is free, and without their support FOA would not be where we are today.

DDN: As the community assesses where things are with the opioid crisis, what does a recovered community look like?

Erion: To me, recovery is diverse pathways that lead to personal growth, personal progress and which help lead you to your potential. It’s a balance of “regular” people, by which I mean people who aren’t in recovery, and people in recovery. It’s anyone who should care about helping people in recovery be healthy. That includes the whole community — employers, health care, our families, all our government agencies, all these entities coming together.

DDN: People who’ve followed you, either in the media or on Facebook, are familiar with your daughter April’s addiction struggles and how they affect you, your family and your work at FOA. How is April doing?

Erion: She is good, finally. I would say we had a rough last year. She relapsed and it was a very rough year. Due to the legal issues that she faced, she’s now getting really good help, and she’s currently in a really great extended in-patient program. She’s to the point where she’s going to lose her freedom if she doesn’t do the work. She’s in her ninth year, so statistically it’s about time.

DDN: As a parent, this must be difficult.

Erion: The other day, a friend gave me the expression, “vulnerable leadership.” I got it and I felt better when I heard it. Just because I started FOA that doesn’t mean I have all the answers. I try to provide the avenues for resources and relief so families can feel better — but it doesn’t mean that I’m always peachy myself, because I’m in it like everyone else. Not every day is a good day for me. People have this expectation of me that I don’t experience some of the same things our families do … but at the end of day, I still have my own recovery, 13 years, and my own family problems. Everything in our lives, mine and my daughter’s, there’s no definitive guarantees of anything. And that’s where the vulnerable leadership comes in. I have to be OK with that. Not everything is perfect for me, either, and I think that brings me closer to families in FOA, because I’m one of them.

DDN: But you sound like you’ve gotten plenty out of FOA as well.

Erion: Well, I would say if not for FOA, my relationship with my guy wouldn’t be as great as it is today. We had five rough years before, but since FOA he’s been in it supporting me from the very beginning. Our relationship is better working on this together, and he’s a great role model for my children. Personally, FOA has done that for me. Secondly, I would probably be insane and a basket case dealing with my daughter’s addiction if I had not had this to keep me busy; FOA is not something you do when you feel like it. Five years later, definitely a growing experience. It’s been a lot. Plus, running my own freelance design company the whole time. It’s really rewarding, though, what I’m doing. I feel great that this idea I had is able to really make a difference in people’s lives. We improve families’ lives. We make people better.

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