Operation Helping Hands

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

One of my favorite quotes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt is from May of 1932 when he spoke at Oglethorpe University. FDR said a lot of things that day as it was the height of the Great Depression, but what stands out to me is this: “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

The “try something” approach comes to mind when I think of Operation Helping Hands, a program launched in June of 2019 by the State Attorney General’s Office in response to the opioid crisis. The program has been slowly progressing across the state and is now getting established in Bridgeton and in western parts of Cumberland County.

Operation Helping Hands is more or less a diversion program connecting individuals struggling with opioid addiction with trained recovery coaches, medication-assisted treatment, and referrals and resources intended to get people on a pathway to recovery. One of the program’s strengths is that there’s a degree of flexibility so that counties and towns can figure out what works best on the ground.

Locally, Bridgeton’s EMS Division will be working with the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office to identify persons struggling with addiction and those most vulnerable to a drug overdose and then engage with them directly. The hope is that by reaching out and showing we care, some might be ready to commit to treatment, either as an inpatient or an outpatient.

According to the NJ Department of Health, from 2017 to the present, 2,631 people in Cumberland County were saved by Naloxone with 498 of those from my community of Bridgeton and six in Shiloh. Having trained recovery coaches follow up is in keeping with the idea of “try something.”

Operation Helping Hands uses “Overdose Data to Action” or “OD2A” as developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the scaffolding. This approach centers on collecting as much detailed, timely and actionable data as possible on nonfatal and fatal overdoses and using that data to figure out the best approaches to prevention. What might be teased out of the data and where it might lead will vary, and recovery coaches will likely have to walk a fine line.

I say that because you never quite know where anyone is in terms of confronting the problem. We can be awfully stubborn when it comes to admitting our weaknesses, failures, and vulnerabilities. People can find creative ways to excuse or justify their behaviors—half the battle is actually admitting that you have a substance abuse problem.

Those involved with Operation Helping Hands will no doubt encounter their share of hostility with some still in denial, but it is worth it to plant the seed of recovery. For those willing to admit and confront their addiction, Operation Helping Hands can provide a starting place toward recovery.

The important aspect to this program is that by using this data, we reach out rather than leaving it to the person struggling with addiction to reach out. Shame, embarrassment, and fear can be unbelievably powerful feelings that prevent people from acknowledging their circumstance.

Approaching people with respect and compassion, while helping to preserve their dignity, can be equally as powerful and is often the foundation upon which recovery can take place. Last year, 3,081 New Jersey residents died from suspected drug overdoses. As FDR said “take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Mayoral Musings