Every so often Emily Buker pauses in her busy day to reflect on how much her life has changed in the last year.

The 28-year-old woman who nine months ago was homeless, unemployed, addicted to drugs, committing crimes to support her habit and hanging out with the wrong crowd now is clean, sober, working and getting her life back together.

“I was not reliable. I was not trustworthy. I couldn’t hold a job. I was addicted,” she said. “Now I’m reliable. I’m trustworthy. I’ve had the same job. It’s amazing how it’s changed. I don’t wake up miserable anymore. I wake up and I have a productive day.”

A former Waterville resident, Buker is in recovery in Virginia after years of using drugs, getting arrested for drug-related crimes and hurtling toward probable death, which she says she avoided by seeking help from Operation HOPE, a Waterville Police Department program that put her in treatment.

It was Thanksgiving Day last year when she got on a plane headed to Richmond, Virginia, scared, sick and apprehensive about what a treatment facility such as True Recovery would be like.

“I was nervous because I had never flown before,” Buker said Monday by phone. “I didn’t know anybody. I thought I was coming into a rehabilitation center, a hospital-type place. But the first house I was in with other girls was very clean, a nice place. It was really scary, but when I got here there was a lot of support. Everyone was in recovery. I was with women my age, which helped.”

Operation HOPE, which stands for Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort, focuses on enforcement, education and treatment with the primary focus on treatment. In November, Buker’s mother, Verna Buker, took her to the Police Department, where they met compassionate officers who listened to Emily Buker but did not judge her.

Verna Buker, shown with Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey on Nov. 27, 2017, at the police station, credits the department’s Operation HOPE program with getting her 27-year-old daughter into a drug treatment program in Virginia. Staff file photo by David Leaming

She was given toiletries, bedsheets and airfare to Virginia, as well as funding for 30 days in treatment. After she completed the 30 days, she got a job cooking in a diner and later an additional part-time job cooking. She now lives in a different house with 13 other women in recovery and is assistant house manager, a responsible position in which she tests the women for drugs and helps makes sure they abide by curfew, go to meetings and take their medications.

She pays $135 a week for a room in the house and hopes to become house manager, which would allow her to live there rent-free.

Her mother has visited her, and their relationship, which had been trying because of her past behavior, has blossomed and grown. Buker also has started the process of reconnecting with her 11-year-old son, whom she has not seen in three years.

“I have had conversations with my son’s father again, which is amazing,” she said. “I want to show that I’m reliable, and I want to be part of my son’s life. It takes time.”

Buker has come a long way from a childhood in which her family moved around a lot and she started drinking and smoking marijuana as a sixth-grader.

“The first time I drank a lot was at an off-campus lunch. I drank myself into a coma,” she said. “I was expelled from school at 15. It was pretty bad. I woke up in the hospital, and that’s when I realized maybe I have a little problem. I said I’d drink less. I tried to justify everything.”

She started experimenting with pills and then needles.

“That’s when I lost everything. You don’t even care and you don’t have any emotions — no feelings, no feelings of remorse.”

Had it not been for Operation HOPE, she said, she would be incarcerated or dead.

“I would definitely, without a doubt, be in prison right now. Before I went to Operation HOPE, I was on probation. I was doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. I have four years hanging over my head. Me and two other guys in 2015 were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Every time I met with my probation officer, I was not caring. I was supposed to be accomplishing goals. I was not going to any meetings. I didn’t care.”

When she hit rock bottom, her mother took her to the police, a move Buker says saved her life.

“I am grateful and I couldn’t have done this without Waterville PD or Operation HOPE. I was very well-known with them in a bad way and they were very kind. I probably wouldn’t be here today. I probably wouldn’t be alive, and my son would not have a mother if they didn’t do this for me. I’m just forever thankful.”

CREATING A ‘VIABLE’ PROGRAM

Those who come to the Police Department addicted to drugs are placed in a residential treatment facility as part of Operation HOPE, which is modeled after the ANGEL program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the Scarborough Police Department’s Operation HOPE. Waterville’s program partners with the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, MaineGeneral, Discovery House of Central Maine and Healthy Northern Kennebec.

The program, launched in January 2017, survives on donations and fundraising efforts by the Police Department, including golf tournaments, concerts and other events, according to Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey. He praised Deputy Chief Bill Bonney for researching similar programs in other areas and helping to create a viable program.

“He did a great job in researching all that and tailoring it to our needs,” Massey said.

Since the program started, 68 people have enrolled in the program and more have come in to inquire about it, he said. The department does not track how the participants fare after treatment.

“It’s difficult for us to track. That is an added resource we just don’t have,” Massey said. “We send them to the treatment facilities and we hope they’re successful.”

Operation HOPE spent $2,640 for Emily’s treatment, including detoxification and housing, as well as $328 more for airfare, according to Massey.

Joseph Massey, left, Waterville’s police chief, talks with Chase Fabian, Project Hope coordinator, center, and Deputy Chief Bill Bonney about the area’s opioid troubles on Feb. 21, 2017, at the Waterville police station. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

He said costs vary according to the treatment facility and whether detoxification is offered or needed. In addition to police officers’ involvement, Operation HOPE uses volunteers referred to as “angels” who come in and help find treatment facilities for those who need it.

“I think the program is doing terrific,” Massey said Tuesday. “As we said from day one when we implemented Operation HOPE in January 2017, if we help just one person and put them on the road to recovery, I think it’s a success.”

The fact that Emily Buker is in recovery is a testament to her courage and fortitude, coming to the police at the darkest time in her life and accepting treatment, Massey said.

Photos of her before and after treatment show an entirely different woman, who now is healthy and happy, he said.

“I hope she can be an inspiration to other people addicted to opioids and realize there is a way out,” he said. “It’s not easy, but they can reach out to us. There is hope.”

Waterville police are delighted to have been able to help Buker and be part of her story, he said. The long-term solution is getting people who are addicted into treatment and healthy.

“She did it and here she is on the road to recovery — not just recovery, but helping other folks. There’s no better person to do that than someone who’s been there.”

Massey said it would be wonderful if there was a national effort to ensure such programs survive, but there is not, and so communities must develop their own innovative strategies to deal with the addiction crisis. Fundraising is the biggest piece in making sure the programs survive, according to Massey.

“But it’s difficult,” he said. “The funding piece is very, very difficult and we struggle with that.”

Buker said she got two friends from Maine to come into the treatment program, and they successfully completed the 30 days and returned home.

The program has five recovery houses for men and women who come from all over the country, she said. She has made friends, “actual friends — people that don’t use you. They just genuinely care about your well-being and love you and who you are.”

She hopes to stay in Virginia — the farthest south she has ever been from Maine — a year at least. She said she likes Virginia a lot. She said she has met a man who is special and they spend time doing “normal things” when they are not working, such as going to the movies and fishing in Chesapeake Bay.

“It’s beautiful out there and I love it,” she said, the sound of joy in her voice.

She hopes people donate to Operation HOPE and recommends others who are addicted seek help from the program, though it is hard to take that first step.

“They have to want it. They have to hit their rock bottom and realize there’s no hope in dope. I’m living proof that Operation HOPE works. You get all the things that you deserve back. You get your family back. You get your kids back. Everyone deserves to feel happiness.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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