In Atlantic County, everyone, it seems has an addiction story.
“There’s no stranger to it,” Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler said. “There’s no boundaries.”
But there have been obstacles.
Those in recovery — and their loved ones — know better than anyone.
Community members came together Thursday at Mainland Regional High School for Empowering the Recovery Community to Impact Change.
Leaders in the community spoke of the struggles and what’s available. But they also had good news toward solution.
Atlantic County is one of four pilot programs in the country chosen for Building Strength Through Mentorship, run by Faces and Voice of Addiction.
It will be led by the Recovery Force of Atlantic County, started by Bob Catalano Jr., a clinical psychologist and Holy Spirit graduate who worked years in the recovery field in Pennsylvania. He returned home after seeing how behind the area was in the addiction battle.
An addict in long-term recovery himself, he lost his younger brother to the effects of addiction three years ago.
“We do recover and we buy homes, so we’re in your neighborhood,” he told the group gathered Thursday. “It’s time we stop blaming people for relapsing when we don’t have a system to support them.”
Catalano will work with Jennifer Hansen, a virtual rock star in the local recovery community. With 21 years’ clean, she was one of the first in the area to put a face and a name to addiction.
She went from bringing “strays” home from meetings because they had nowhere to go to starting her own sober living houses.
Whether people need a place to stay or a job or new teeth, the community is there to help, she said.
“When I cut the ribbon for the first Hansen House, I knew why,” Hansen said of her struggles, as her voice broke with emotion. “There was a purpose for all of it.”
But everyone gathered knows there is still work to be done, and faces to come forward to keep addiction and recovery out of the shadows.
Vanessa Vitolo wrote down every hurdle she hit after she got out of jail and began on the difficult path of rebuilding her life in recovery.
It all went into a letter that the Absecon woman sent to Gov. Chris Christie. That led to her story being one told as part of the ReachNJ campaign.
Like many, it was prescribed pain killers that led to her addiction.
“It happened so fast,” she says in the commercial. “I was a full-blown heroin addict, selling my soul to get high.”
She got help and got clean “three years, five months and seven days ago,” she told the group Thursday. “But who’s counting?”
The county’s new sheriff said his only reason for running was to give a voice to recovery.
Twelve years ago, a family member’s struggle brought him into the world he once thought he knew — and admittedly judged — as a police officer.
“Eventually it touched my family and changed my life,” he said.
He said bringing the experts together was to help “build upon what we’re doing right.”
“We’re trying to learn from them and see how we can come together as a larger force because that’s truly what we need,” Scheffler said to applause. “We need an army of recovery to help each other to move forward.”
He ran for sheriff because “I knew that this uniform and this position would give me a platform,” he told those gathered. “It would give me a platform, would give me a voice to be able to work for you, the recovery community.”
He is now working with Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner in creating a LEAD program, or law-enforcement assisted diversion.
Started in Seattle, it gives addict arrested a chance to get treatment instead of incarceration.