Project Refuge gaining momentum in helping addicts

December 9, 2016
Nicole Leith, a certified recovery specialist who is also a recovering addict, is shown at Washington Drug and Alcochol Commission. She is one of those at the forefront of Project Refuge. - Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

A partnership of faith-related organizations appears to be making headway with helping drug addicts recover while regaining faith in themselves.

“The response has been excellent,” the Rev. Michael Lehman said of Project Refuge, an interdenominational effort to help active addicts connect with religious leaders who can link them to drug treatment and recovery services and more.

Project Refuge is a partnership of the Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission and churches and faith organizations countywide. The endeavor was launched in June and includes training for religious leaders on how to deal with those affected by drug use, and how to enlighten their congregations in a region wracked by opioid overdoses the past two years.

“Part of training is to get the proper understanding that addiction is a disease,” said Lehman, pastor of Fairhill Christian Church in Washington. “A big part is breaking down the stigma that this is a moral failure and a sin.”

Recovery and prevention are among the project’s other key elements, along with advising addicts on how to deal with legal and criminal concerns that may prevent them from seeking treatment.

There have been two training sessions thus far – in Washington in June and at Mon Valley Hospital on Nov. 1. A session between those dates, planned for the northern part of the county, had to be canceled because of a small response. Overall, though, an impressive number of faith organizations have come on board.

“We had 55 pastors trained in June, and 35 additional pastors and faith leaders at Mon Valley,” Lehman said.

Nicole Leith, a certified recovery specialist with the Drug and Alcohol Commission, added that those leaders have been provided with a 24/7 access line and more than 60 churches have been equipped with Narcan. Known formally as naloxone, the drug is an emergency antidote for opioid overdoses.

Faith organizations have helped in other ways. Lehman’s church is host to meetings for two Narcotics Anonymous chapters.

Cheryl Andrews, the commission’s executive director, said Project Refuge is “gaining momentum.”

“We need all the help we can get in combating this issue,” she said. “Churches are at the center of a community and we need their involvement, so people feel safe and comfortable going through the door of a church to get help for their loved ones.

“The difficulty when we try to reach out to the faith-based community is we tend to get a lot of resistance. There is a lot of legalism within our churches. That’s why we use Pastor Hedges and Pastor Lehman. They try to recruit other churches.”

The Rev. Bob Hedges is director of Resurrection Power, which owns four recovery houses in Washington. He and Lehman have been among those at the forefront of Project Refuge.

So is Leith, who has a large personal investment in this. She is a recovering drug addict.

“I will be three years clean and sober in May.”

While living in the east suburbs of Pittsburgh, Leith was court-mandated to a halfway house in Washington. She has been in recovery for 2 ½ years, during which she earned recovery specialist certification and managed a three-quarters house for Hedges before working for the commission. Leith decided on Washington as her permanent hometown and is engaged to be married.

She is engaged in her work as well, providing a voice of experience whose words resonate. “I work with clients who struggle with substance abuse on a peer-to-peer basis. I tell them, ‘I’ve been there, this is what worked for me.’ I introduce them to resources that promote long-term recovery.”

Project Refuge is one of those resources.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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