Six months ago, two mothers who had watched their children struggle with heroin addiction stood in a conference room in the Ocean Pines Library with about 50 strangers during what was the first meeting of their new group, the Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction.
Information was exchanged, tearful stories were told and a larger discussion was started by founders Jackie Ball and Heidi McNeeley about what can people do to help friends and family members struggling with addiction.
A month later, during the group’s second meeting, attendance had swelled to nearly 300, partially because a series of fatal overdoses in the area drove even more people to ask that same question.
By this time, delegates and senators had gotten involved, along with local law enforcement, officials from local schools, and several workers from the Worcester County Health Department.
During the next four monthly meetings, held at different locations in Ocean City and Berlin, the group continued to host new speakers, introduce several subcommittees and work toward solutions to what had locally been termed an epidemic – heroin addiction.
McNeeley said she never expected her little group would grab so much attention from the public.
“When we had our first meeting, basically my thought was I’m just going to invite people to come to the library and we’ll sit around and talk and see who has experienced this and what we can do as a group to support each other,” she said. “Every day I’m just amazed. The community response has just been incredible.”
On Sept. 25, the Warriors held their first fundraiser, dubbed “Rock for Recovery,” at Trader Lees in Ocean City. More than $4,000 was raised for a new program called “Warrior Angels.”
Heidi’s husband, Jamie McNeeley, helped organize the event and gathered dozens of items donated by local businesses for a silent auction.
“[Money] that came in from the fundraiser are earmarked specifically to help somebody get into treatment,” McNeeley said. “We have this new committee that’s part of our group that’s modeled after a program that was in Boston, Massachusetts – and there’s also one in Maine called Operation Hope – and it’s partnering with the police department and other community organizations to help somebody who’s addicted.”
The idea, she said, is to get someone help as soon as possible once they have decided they’re ready for it.
“Once you’ve gone through the phone call and the waiting and all the doors have been closed in your face, eventually you just kind of give up, especially if you’re addicted. If you’re addicted, your brain isn’t equipped to deal with that,” McNeeley said. “The Warrior Angels will meet them where they are.”
More than 20 people have already volunteered for the new committee, McNeeley said, and each will receive training based on the Operation Hope program.
“They’ll go through volunteer training, and then they’ll respond and they’ll act like a case manager,” McNeeley said. “If, for example, a police officer calls me and says, ‘I have somebody here at Atlantic General Hospital,’ if I’m on call, I go to Atlantic General Hospital and I talk to them and work to find them treatment. I know who will accept their insurance, I know who doesn’t require insurance, and I’m making all those phone calls.”
If a volunteer finds a treatment center in Florida that accepts a particular type of insurance, the Warrior Angel program will cover the cost of the plane ticket to get there, McNeeley said.
“That money’s going to get someone to treatment, or to help pay for their treatment if their insurance doesn’t,” Jamie McNeeley said.
McNeeley said volunteer training would be minimal, and that the group is still working with local law enforcement to coordinate specifics of the program. Ocean Pines Police Det. Tish Ottey will chair the committee.
The Warriors’ next regular meeting is Oct. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at Stephen Decatur High School. McNeeley said future meetings would likely also be held at the school.
Although attendance had dipped slightly during recent meetings, Jamie McNeeley said he expects that to change with school coming back in session.
“Hopefully we’ll start getting a bigger crowd than the last few,” he said. “During the summer there weren’t a whole lot of people just because it’s summer.”
The Warriors are eyeing a second fundraiser, to be held at Lighthouse Sound in January, and a new website is in development, thanks to a donation from D3Corp.
On Wednesday, McNeeley signed a lease to rent office space inside the Berlin Visitor’s Center on 14 South Main Street.
“Really what proceeded everything is we wanted to have a physical space where a mom who has just found out that her child’s doing heroin can walk in the door and have somebody to talk to, and have brochures from different treatment options,” McNeeley said. “We’ve talked to so many parents who have had doors shut on them. They need to know, if this door’s shut here’s something else. To have a physical space would be incredible.”
For more information on the Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction, email McNeeley at email@example.com, visit www.wocowarriors.org, or search “Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction” on Facebook.