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Having had enough, women go straight to the top for help
millinocket-ladies
Written by Lara Santoro

Maine’s Director of Opioid Response steps in to help get a recovery community center for Millinocket

Gordon Smith was breezing past his desk one day this past spring when the phone rang. “It was unusual,” says Maine’s Director of Opioid Response, for two reasons: Nobody ever rang the landline and Smith was almost never in his Augusta office, preferring to be out in communities around Maine.

“I picked it up and it was a woman from Millinocket,” recalls Smith. “She said, ‘we have a terrible problem up here and my two friends and I want to do something about it.’”

Barely four months into the job, Smith got in his car and drove three hours to Millinocket, a northern Maine town stretched in the shadow of a paper mill that filed for bankruptcy in 2003

Michelle Anderson, Vel Rudge and Ginger Collins were waiting for him.

Pulling up a chair at Collins’ kitchen table, Smith readied himself for another all-too familiar tale of woe. The mill had quit production just as the painkiller Oxycontin washed over the United States along with others like it. In the decade that followed, the town’s population had dropped from 5,000 to a few hundred – many of them survivors of an epidemic that killed more Americans in 2018 alone than the Vietnam and the Korean wars combined.

But the tale diverged, says Smith, in one significant respect.

The women had had enough.

The police, the hospitals, the jails, the courthouses, officials at all levels of government – no one had been able to offer anything resembling a solution. “No one was doing anything so we said, ‘I think we’re someone,’” says Anderson, who paid a high price for her own addiction to heroin, spending over a decade in jail in San Francisco before getting clean and sober, meeting a man, marrying him and moving to Maine.

What the women wanted was a community center modeled after the Bangor Area Recovery Network, affectionately known as the BARN, and the Portland Recovery Community Center. And they wanted it smack in the middle of Millinocket. They asked Smith to help pay for it and for guidance on how to set up services ranging from recovery coaching to GED testing and tutoring. The women, who have all been trained as recovery coaches at the BARN, wondered if Smith would help them turn this dream into reality.

Smith, 67, reports only to Gov. Janet Mills and likes to say his job description “is non-existent,” giving him ample ability to direct initiatives and disburse funds. He penned a government contract covering the rent of a 3,000-square-foot building – a former car dealership able to concurrently accommodate four 12-steps meetings. The building owner contributed in her own way by both lowering the rent to $1,200 a month and offering to take care of both heat and hot water herself. The result is the Pir2Peer Recovery Community Center, which is expected to open soon.

“We believed in God,” says Anderson says. “We didn’t have to open any doors. They just opened.”

They envision a super busy space with parole officers meeting with their charges in one room as sponsors take sponsees through steps in the next one. As one 12-step meeting ends, others will begin. Anderson wants it to be a place where people just mingle and feel welcome.

And the center’s founders want it to be a place that emphasizes the acquisition of skills.

“I was in prison for most of my adult life – I couldn’t find a job,” recalls Anderson. Because of her own experiences, she’s determined to offer hands-on assistance with creating résumés, catching people up on their computer skills, and even taking job applicants through rounds of mock interviews.

Millinocket, says Smith, is just one example of a statewide trend toward localized, community-based solutions. “People have acted out of anger because they saw people suffering, because they saw people dying. They saw families being destroyed.”

Anderson agrees, and notes that the whole town has come together in support of the center and its efforts. “I can’t get out of the grocery store in under half an hour because everyone is affected,” she says, referring to the number of people that stop her with questions and comments. “Substance abuse disorder affects everybody, absolutely everybody.”

Lara Santoro

Lara Santoro

Lara Santoro is a writer in Portland Maine.