By Jeanette Wolfberg
For Capital Region Independent Media
The Columbia Greene Addiction Coalition (CGAC) is working with organizations and other stakeholders to support individuals and communities impacted by substance abuse, according to CGAC’s Executive Director Hannah Calhoun.
“We’re trying to save lives and build healthy communities,” she said.
Greene County has been hard hit by the nationwide opioid epidemic — in 2021, the county had one of the highest rates for overdose deaths involving opioids and nonfatal opioid-related hospital visits among New York’s 62 counties, according to data released by the New York State Department of Health.
The county had the second highest opioid overdose death rate out of 57 upstate counties, according to Greene County, and the highest death rate for overdoses involving heroin.
For individuals, goals of the CGAC include ending stigmatization, as well as getting them services they need. For communities, Calhoun said, the first step is finding out what changes they want.
Recently, the CGAC got a boost from two grants.
The CGAC grew from efforts in recent years to confront substance abuse, especially the opioid crisis, in Greene and Columbia counties. It was granted non-profit 501(c)(3) status in March 2023.
Now the CGAC is a “multi stakeholder community organization” whose mission includes to “raise awareness of the risk of substance abuse,” to “plan and deliver prevention and harm reduction activities” and to “support treatment and recovery efforts.” The group advocates for individuals in treatment and supports organizations, working with stakeholders and community members, Calhoun said.
Finding out what a community wants is hard and takes time, Calhoun said. However, the Opioid Community Work Group, of which she is a member, held community conversations around the coverage area last spring and got feedback. Two points that attendees brought up, Calhoun said, were that individuals do not know where to go for resources and that communities want help preventing substance abuse before it starts.
The CGAC is looking to address gaps while not duplicating efforts. The trouble is that the services available, and where and how to access them, frequently change, Calhoun said. Therefore, keeping on top of them requires constant vigilance.
Regarding prevention, Calhoun noted that schools provide prevention education, but studies are needed to determine how effective it is. A goal is to build evidence-based prevention education.
One tool in place for prevention needs assessment is a survey administered in schools throughout the U.S. to students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. The survey asks questions like “In the last 30 days, have you used alcohol? Tobacco? Marijuana? Vaping?” “If you use these substances, where do you get them?” and “Where do you use them?”
Schools in Greene County have taken the survey, but so far no school district in Columbia County has agreed to take it, Calhoun reported.
One recently awarded grant comes through a Drug-Free Communities Program funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office for Drug Control Policy. The grant awarded $125,000 a year for up to five years. The CGAC is using the funding to build its capacity, to build awareness of the organization and what it does, and to work with consultants from the Prevention Technology Center, affiliated with Rutgers University, Calhoun said.
These consultants do training in “capacity building” and needs assessment. Capacity building includes developing the organization’s strengths and skills, getting it more known within the community, understanding risk factors for substance abuse, and understanding “how we can work together and address” that abuse, according to Calhoun. Needs assessment includes determining what services the community needs and where there are gaps that need to be filled.
The second grant, from the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Support (OASAS), provides $200,000 a year for four years. It is for Greene County, because that county has ranked so high in deaths from opioid abuse.
Questions CGAC currently wrestles with include how the organization be more visible, what information is lacking and what other events can the community do, she noted.
“We’re looking at community patterns,” Calhoun said.
The CGAC has two employees and a nine-member board of directors. The employees are Calhoun, of Columbia County, and an assistant she just hired from Greene County. She also plans to hire a part-time data analyst.
The board of directors’ president is Jason Fredenberg, Greene County’s director of Community Services, and its vice president is Dan Almasi, Columbia County’s director of Community Services.