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Recovering addicts in Arkansas combat opioid epidemic

JONESBORO, Ark. — Plenty of people tried to help Shalinda Woolbright kick her drug habit.

“I have been in recovery for 13 years,” Woolbright, a Jonesboro resident, told The Jonesboro Sun. “By the time I was so miserable getting clean was the only option I had, I had been to prison and had a record that was 29 pages long.”

Woolbright said it wasn’t until someone in recovery reached out to help her that she began listening.

Today, Woolbright is a counselor-in-training at Northeast Arkansas Treatment Services.

Recovering addicts counseling those with addictions will soon be a common practice. Peer recovery specialists will soon be located throughout the state of Arkansas to help combat the opioid crisis.

Arkansas Department of Human Services is in its second year of spearheading a program to halt deaths related to opioid overdoses, thanks to a $7.8 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

This year the focus is on building an infrastructure of peer recovery specialists.

Woolbright recently completed the training in Little Rock because she believes in the program.

“It is easier to identify with someone who has been there because you don’t feel judged,” she said.

Peer recovery specialists are unique in that they are people who have suffered from drug addiction themselves, but have emerged on the other side and are trained to work with addicts seeking recovery.

Jimmy McGill, state peer recovery coordinator, said that he has been there himself.

“An addict is in misery. I hated myself when I would use, because I wasn’t strong enough not to,” he said.

McGill said he is currently tasked with developing, implementing and evaluating a peer recovery program at the state level.

“A lot of what I have done in the last year is build a peer recovery infrastructure,” he said. “I designed the Peers Achieving Collaborative Treatment project, which allows Arkansas to place peer recovery specialists in unique positions that are totally outside the box.”

“This allows us to place PRSs in drug courts, jails and hospitals,” McGill said. “We have placed PRSs at drug court in Randolph County and at both the jail and drug court in Lonoke County.”

Peer recovery specialists are also on call at CHI St. Vincent in Sherwood and Little Rock. “We are also working toward establishing them in University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.”

Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane said society has to change its concept of how to treat drug addiction.

“We have to reduce the stigma,” he said. “Don’t criminalize these people. These people are you and me, not the people in the alleyway.”

Lane said that it is a powerful thing when someone overdoses and they wake up to have someone there to say, “Hey, I know what it is like to wake up from being dead.”

McGill said he’s been clean for four years, and his story is an unusual one in that his former nemesis is now his boss and advocate.

“It was four years ago that I successfully re-entered society. I am the first parolee to hold a state position that I know of,” McGill said.

Lane ended up hiring the same man he had repeatedly arrested.

“Lane was the captain of the Criminal Investigations Division in Little Rock,” McGill said. “I have been following his career since he was a patrolman — just in the backseat of his police car. Lane led the team that arrested me, my father, my friends and other family members. To us he was the bogeyman.”

McGill said recovery gave his life a purpose.

“It was like I had to go through everything I went through to be qualified to do what I do today,” he said.

McGill and Lane had a chance encounter when both attended a conference in Little Rock to speak about drug abuse.

“I had a pretty big following because I was releasing underground music, so recovery for me was big deal,” McGill said. “I spoke that night and there were a couple hundred people. They were there because I was there.”

McGill said Lane was so shocked, he did not even recognize him.

“Lane told me that day he knew people could find recovery,” McGill said.

After that point, the two began to team up and do public speaking engagements together.

“It was like a cops and robbers story,” McGill said.

It wasn’t long before he heard about an opening at the state level.

“Someone said there was a recovery position opening at the state. I had no idea I was going to get the job when I interviewed,” McGill recalled.

Now that he serves as the state peer recovery coordinator, his goal is to have an infrastructure of peer recovery specialists in all 75 counties in Arkansas.

“We currently have 230 trained,” he said. “We plan on training 30 a month or more for the next two years.”

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