Bill Lessa feels good about what he’s accomplished so far as a volunteer for the Waterville Police Department’s new program that helps those in the community addicted to drugs get long-term treatment.

But that good feeling isn’t without some frustration at the lack of infrastructure in the state to help those with a substance abuse disorder.

“Step one is to get them into detox. After that you can talk long-term treatment somewhere,” said Lessa, who helped place two people in residential facilities. “That’s where the issue kind of lies … it’s a lack of detox centers, is what it really is.”

The problem gets worse when you’re trying to find detox centers for people who don’t have insurance, he said.

Operation HOPE, which stands for Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort, is one part of the three-pronged approach the department is using to fight the ongoing drug epidemic, Deputy Chief Bill Bonney said. The goal of HOPE, which focuses on treatment, is not only to help those in need, but to also lower the demand for drugs in the area. During a time when the Attorney General’s Office says nearly one Mainer is dying each day from a drug overdose, police departments across the nation, including 11 in Maine, are taking action with similar programs.

“So far there’s been nothing easy about it, but we’re committed to it,” Bonney said.

In a little more than a month, the program has managed to help seven people, four of whom have already been placed in long-term residential facilities. It’s also raised more than $6,000 in donations and recruited another volunteer.

Bill Lessa

Lessa, who suffered from an opiate addiction for years, said giving back feels good.

“Every day, I know what these people are going through,” he said. “Hopefully they don’t have to go through the extent of what I went through.”

The program started on Jan. 15, and the police and volunteers, called “angels,” have since worked with seven people, placing four in long-term treatment facilities. The other three have gone through short-term detox centers in Maine.

“The goal, obviously, of the program is to place them in long-term treatment facilities,” Bonney said. “But the demand has far outpaced the supply of beds nationwide.”

Residential and long-term facilities are ideal because they remove those struggling with addiction from their environments, where they may have easy access to drugs.

But finding the right fit and the right financial package can be tough, Bonney said. If the person struggling with addiction also has other mental health issues, that complicates the process even further because not many facilities are equipped to handle both, he said.

The three men and one woman who are now in residential treatment centers in programs that last about a month were very excited to get the treatment, said Officer Chase Fabian, who is a coordinator of the program along with Officer Ryan Dinsmore. Three people went to facilities in Maine and one traveled to Virginia after the facility waived the majority of the fee.

Some of those who went through short-term detox are staying clean on their own now, but there is one person who calls weekly to see if they’ve found a place for her, Fabian said.

For every person the department has helped, there are many more who want help but aren’t quite ready to get it, Fabian said.

He gets five calls each week from people who are interested in Operation HOPE, but who never “commit” and come to the station, he said.

“It requires a huge commitment on the part of the participant,” Bonney said. They have to commit to changing their way of life and going to whatever treatment facility will take them.

Some of the volunteers working to match those who need help with the appropriate facilities know about that commitment firsthand.

Eleanor Trask

Two of the angels — Lessa and Eleanor Trask — have personal experience struggling with addiction, and a third, Laurie Brown, has watched a family member struggle for years. They all signed on to show people there is hope and to help fight the epidemic.

“I think that’s why they’re so passionate,” Bonney said. “That type of community involvement for people who have involved in opiate abuse is huge.”

The department is partnering with the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, or PAARI, to match people with residential facilities. Other partners include the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, MaineGeneral Health, Healthy Northern Kennebec and the Discovery House of Central Maine, which is a program of Acadia Healthcare.

The angels help the department make calls to hundreds of facilities around the country, some of which are partners with PAARI. So far, three of the four trained angels have been involved in placements, Bonney said, and a fifth has signed on for the next training session. The volunteers are essential to making the program work, he said.

The volunteer angels “have spent hours upon hours working to get these people someplace safe,” Bonney said. “There’s no cookie-cutter way to get these people where they need to be.”

But when the department is able to place someone in a residential facility for treatment, it feels great, Fabian said.

“The feeling you get when you’re able to help somebody and get them treatment and hopefully change their life for the better — it’s unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t even describe it.”

Laurie Brown

The department is continuing its strong enforcement efforts, focusing on arresting drug dealers who are moving the majority of drugs into the area, Bonney said. Fabian has just recently been reassigned to the detective division to help with investigations.

Waterville Police are also going to be attacking the epidemic with education. The two coordinators of HOPE — Dinsmore and Fabian — are receiving training for a program called Prime for Life. They will work with Healthy Northern Kennebec to start a program that will teach the officers how to speak with children who are most at risk for drug abuse, so they can educate them about risk factors and prevention.

“I am so pleased that we’re able to offer project HOPE to the community,” said Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey. “It’s a great opportunity to be able to provide this type of help to the people who need it.”

The program also plans to be self-sufficient and to not depend on tax dollars, Bonney said. The department raised $2,910 at a benefit concert in January and another $3,255 in private donations through the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. The money raised will mostly go toward travel costs for people who are accepted into faraway facilities.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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