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To Educate Colorado Communities On Opioids, AmeriCorps Deploys ‘Super Passionate Workforce’

Stephanie Daniel
Amanda Rieskamp with the Centennial Area Health Education Center talks to a health class about opioid abuse prevention.

You’ve probably heard of AmeriCorps. The national service organization has 300,000 members who work on programs ranging from education programming to disaster relief, like during Hurricane Harvey and the Northern California wildfires. They even build houses and connect veterans to social services.

But in 2017, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) – which administers national service programs like AmeriCorps – did something unusual.

The federal agency hosted a separate funding competition for a specific issue: the opioid epidemic.

“The opioid crisis is something that is touching many Americans’ lives at every level. CNCS is a uniquely structured federal agency that allows us to be flexible with our funding,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokesperson for CNCS. “So, in times of national crisis or when our priorities are changing. We’re able to focus our energies on specific challenges that are facing both local communities and also our nation as a whole”.

Opioid overdose deaths are increasing every year. 115 Americans die from prescription pain pills, heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl each day. In Colorado, the drugs claimed a record number of people last year.

“We have heard loud and clear from communities across Colorado that prescription drug abuse is a very pressing issue,” said Nellie Stagg, program officer at Serve Colorado.

Serve Colorado is a government agency that oversees the states service and volunteer programs. The agency received grants from CNCS and the Colorado Office of the Attorney General to create the Colorado AmeriCorps Community Opioid Response Program, or CORP.

CORP began last October with 12 AmeriCorps members working with local communities to prevent prescription pain pill misuse and abuse. To assist these members, Serve Colorado also partnered with several organizations: the Colorado Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force, the Central Colorado Area Health Education Center, Rise Above Colorado and the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

“A lot of the times what we are seeing is people don’t want to think that their community actually does have an issue, but the statistics show something different,” said Gina Olberding, operations manager at the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, the governor’s statewide task force on the crisis. “No community is really immune to this. It impacts everybody. So, we have to tackle sort of the public awareness piece in a multitude of ways.”

While the sheer number of opioid overdoses is highest in the state’s larger, more urban areas, rural counties have the highest death rates. To reach these smaller communities, AmeriCorps members are stationed at the state’s six Area Health Education Centers and their various partner sites.

"We have heard loud and clear from communities across Colorado that prescription drug abuse is a very pressing issue,” said Nellie Stagg, program officer at Serve Colorado.

The AmeriCorps members facilitate pain pill take back events with law enforcement, educate health care providers about safe prescribing practices and teach teens how to make smart choices around prescription pills.

“The AmeriCorps concept is so vital in what’s happening because we’re getting this really excited, highly educated, super passionate workforce,” said Monica Mika, executive director of the Centennial Area Health Education Center (CAEHC). “Most of them are in a service year or year and a half and that’s what’s neat about it as far as we’re trying to deliver these services in a really cost-effective fashion.”

CAHEC is based in Greeley and serves counties in northeastern Colorado. This spring, they are presenting “Not Prescribed” at local schools and community centers. The youth program, developed by drug abuse prevention organization Rise Above Colorado, is geared specifically towards young people.

Weld County Teacher Lynnette Veik was quick to invite the program to her eight-grade health class at Union Colony Preparatory School in Greeley. The county has seen overdose deaths triple between 2001 and 2016.

Veik said the opioid epidemic has made it imperative that her students learn about prescription pain pills.

“We’ve got kids dying,” she said. “It’s taking the lives of our future and our kids and they need some strategies for understanding why they may want to take it and understanding how to avoid it. Understanding how to help one another. And recognizing that some of these risks that they take are deadly. I don’t want to lose any more kids.”

In addition to opioid prevention presentations like “Not Prescribed,” AmeriCorps members are coordinating local collection sites during National Prescription Drug Take Back Day on April 28.

Editor’s Note: KUNC general manager Jamie Wood is the school board chair at Union Colony Preparatory School.

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.
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