WATERVILLE — On the day before Thanksgiving, Bret Pokorny got a call from his step-daughter, Haley. She wanted to come home. He and his wife, Hilary White-Pokorny, hadn’t heard from her in months.

“At that point, she had disappeared off the map,” he said. “We didn’t know where she was.”

Pokorny had “straightened her out” a couple of times before, but the 27-year-old was “hooked on opioids,” he said, “and just kept falling back into it.”

About eight months ago, an officer with the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office saw a car parked off the road and found Haley unresponsive inside.

“It took three NARCANs to revive her,” Pokorny said. “She was dead, basically.

“As a parent of an addicted child, you start regretting hearing your phone ring because every time it gives you a sick feeling in your stomach, and your heart jumps because you almost start to live with the fact that your child is going to die,” he said.

But on Nov. 21, Haley’s voice brought Pokorny and White-Pokorny relief.

Jesse Wysocki, left, the chief operating officer of the McShin Foundation, and John Shinholser, president and co-founder of the foundation, were delayed in Philadelphia on their way to speak at the Operation HOPE concert in Waterville on Saturday. The Waterville Police Department sends opioid addicts who ask for help to McShin to get their lives back. Contributed photo

“We told her we wouldn’t let her come home and just sit there, that we were going to get help,” Pokorny, a Hartland resident, said. “When she came home, she looked really rough. She was living on the streets and in hotel rooms.” 

The day after Thanksgiving, the trio walked into the Waterville Police Station. Pokorny said he had heard of the department’s Operation HOPE program, which helps people addicted to opioids get treatment, but didn’t know a lot about it at the time.

“As far as I’m concerned, Operation HOPE saved her life,” he said.

Shortly after arriving at the department, one of the program’s “angels” took Haley to the emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, where doctors began detoxing her.

“They moved her over to detox center that same night,” Porkorny recalled. “Three to four days later we had her on an airplane headed for McShin (recovery community) down in Virginia. They helped out with the plane ticket, and we packed her up and got her down there.”

 

Haley and her stepfather, Bret Pokorny, in 2017, after Haley had been clean for about a year. Haley has since entered a recovery program at the McShin Foundation in Richmond, Va., through the Waterville Police Department’s Operation HOPE. Contributed photo

‘DEALERS OF HOPE’

The Waterville police department launched Operation HOPE — Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort — in January 2017. Since then, the program has helped over 100 individuals like Haley fight drug addictions. It helped 58 people get treatment in 2018 alone, according to Deputy Chief Bill Bonney.

The program relies solely on donations to fund portions of a person’s stay at a residential treatment facility and the travel expenses to get there. Over the years, the department has developed a particularly strong relationship with the McShin Foundation in Richmond, Virginia, where Waterville police send a large portion of people who are looking to participate in Operation HOPE.

“When you’re sending somebody to McShin, you’re spending $1,500 to $3,000 depending on their needs and flight costs, which obviously change depending on the time of year,” Bonney said. “It can cost over $30,000 for a 9-month treatment facility or something like that. Obviously, we don’t have resources to do that.”

On Saturday evening, Pokorny and representatives from the McShin Foundation will address the impact of Operation HOPE at the program’s biggest fundraiser of the year, the 3rd Annual Musicians for Hope Concert. The family-friendly event, which will feature an “eclectic mix of (local talent) playing an eclectic mix of music” and a cash bar, according to Bonney, will start at 7 p.m. at the American Legion building on 21 College Ave. Tickets are $10 and must be purchased in advance at the police station.

Bonney said he hopes the event will raise $10,000 this year. The inaugural concert raised just over $3,000, while last year’s garnered $6,000. As of Friday afternoon, the department had already sold 200 tickets. Every dollar donated will go to someone suffering from substance abuse disorder, Bonney said. On the path to recovery, Pokorny noted that financial barriers can be some of the most difficult to overcome.

Haley, left, and her mother, Hilary White-Pokorny, on Thanksgiving 2018, the day before Haley sought help for an opioid addiction from the Waterville Police Department s Operation HOPE program. Contributed photo

“Paying out of pocket is so hard for some people and obviously when you get to that point — an addict, they don’t have any money for insurance, they don’t have a home, they have nothing,” said Pokorny. “That’s the biggest part of the battle. If they can go in there and say I’m here and I want help, and for them to pick up that first month to get ’em straightened out and back on their feet — it’s all about building confidence and living skills after that.”

The work of Operation HOPE also includes officers “going into the schools, trying to educate young people to prevent next generation of opioid addicts from maturing into opioid addicts,” Bonney said.

“We believe this is an important program because the opioid epidemic is something that affects everyone in the community in some way or another,” he added.

Pokorny said he could not overstate his gratitude for the program. It wasn’t around when his step-son faced similar challenges — but overcame them — six years ago.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful program, and six years ago you couldn’t find any,” said Pokorny. “You could go into the emergency room and they’d detox you for a couple days, throw you back on the street and — it’s scary. When you live with that, you’re just scared it’s all going to fall apart. I was so thankful that there was actually some help for these people and kids and adults — that anybody who needs help at least has a chance.”

Haley has been in recovery at McShin for over three months now. While Waterville’s Operation HOPE funded the first four or five weeks, Pokorny said the foundation has helped Haley secure a full-time job in the Richmond area. She pays for her room on her own now.

She’s gotten in trouble a couple times down there but nothing major,” Pokorny said. “She has her peers, and we’re hoping that she will hang in there and stay there, because if she comes back she will die.

Jesse Wysocki, left, the chief operating officer of the McShin Foundation, and John Shinholser, president and co-founder of the foundation, were delayed in Philadelphia on their way to speak at the Operation HOPE concert in Waterville on Saturday. The Waterville Police Department sends opioid addicts who ask for help to McShin to get their lives back. Contributed photo

“It’s still pins and needles waiting for it to fall apart at this point because that’s how it is when you have a child who’s addicted,” Pokorny said. “It’s getting me teared up. You’ll probably see me on stage tearing up too.”

John Shinholser, president and co-founder of the McShin Foundation, said that the Richmond recovery center places peer-to-peer support at the center of its mission. Shinholser said he has been in recovery himself for 37 years.

“We call ourselves hope dealers,” he said. “I’m a hope dealer, and I get in front of addicts and I start talking and sharing that message of hope: you can stop using drugs if you’d like to stop, and you can lose that desire to use and find a new way to live. … I’m not gonna give you an AmEx and a pickup truck and a job, but you can start here like the rest of us and work your way up to feel good about yourself.”

While the nonprofit organization does not provide clinical treatment, it links individuals to resources that include addiction doctors for medication-assisted detoxification, as well as therapists and counselors. Shinholser said the program has a solid success rate.

“Our data shows that after two years, 40 percent of our people are still engaged in their recovery,” he said. “Now, we think it’s higher than that, but we have a hard time tracking people down. Addicts and alcoholics are very hard people to track. We do know that because of drugs like fentanyl, six to seven percent of these people will be dead in two years. It is a high death rate. I don’t need to tell you the power of this disease. … The more people you can get the message to, the more that recover, and those that don’t you get the message in front of them again.”

Shinholser said he is excited to connect with the greater Waterville community on Saturday. The foundation’s chief operating officer, Jesse Wysocki, will also be attending.

“We wanted to come up and help not only reinforce and strengthen the relationship but encourage people anywhere who needs help to get it,” he said. “I think it’s amazing that the police department there does what they do. I’ve been around a long time and I don’t see that very often. … I’m really impressed with the Waterville police department and the citizens. This is so huge that they do this. That they were even able to identify us and keep using us shows that they’re recognizing the value.”

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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