The holidays are all about giving, and there’s no better gift than one that helps people in their deepest, darkest moments.

The Waterville Police Department’s Operation HOPE program has offered that gift to 167 people addicted to opioids by taking them in and getting them into treatment.

Waterville police Deputy Chief Bill Bonney, left, and Chief Joseph Massey announce the start of Operation HOPE — Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort — at a press conference Nov. 16, 2016. On Tuesday, Massey and Bonney appeared before the Waterville City Council to get council approval to accept a $15,000 grant for the program. Morning Sentinel file photo

The program is possible only through donations and fundraisers — no taxpayers’ dollars are used. As Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey told the City Council on Tuesday night, his department is not in the fundraising business, but it has found itself there for an important reason — helping to save lives.

He and Deputy police Chief Bill Bonney, who Massey described as the program’s architect, attended the meeting because Operation HOPE was  awarded a $15,000 grant from the RX Abuse Leadership Initiative and the council must vote to accept any gift exceeding $10,000.

It didn’t take much for the council to approve the grant. In fact, before the council’s unanimous vote, the audience applauded.

City Manager Michael Roy, who supports the program, said he is not sure many people in the city realize what the Police Department does to help people addicted to opioids.

The program, which stands for Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort, was launched in Waterville in 2017 and focuses on enforcement, education and treatment, with the primary focus on treatment. Those who come to the Police Department sick, scared and addicted are treated with dignity and screened and placed in a residential treatment program. Trained volunteers, or “angels,” check with rehabilitation facilities around the country to find an open spot. The person is given airfare, if necessary, and sent there.

In a moving moment Tuesday, Bonney read aloud the testimony of Jason Tingley, who sent a message to the Police Department’s Facebook page recently, thanking police and Operation HOPE for saving his life: “Dec. 8, 2018, I walked into the front doors of the station wanting to die. I was beaten and broken and wanted it to end. You guys didn’t look at me or treat me as some worthless junkie. Instead I was offered a chance at a new life.”

Tingley wrote he was in detox six days and then, for 28 days, in a Virginia treatment facility that helped change his life.

“Thanks to you guys giving me a chance and believing in me, I celebrated one year, 100 percent clean this past Sunday,” Tingley wrote “No weed, no alcohol, no Suboxone, no methadone, no nothing. Because of some amazing people running an amazing program, we have hope today.”

Tingley said he now lives in Virginia and has met many people who also have been referred to treatment by Waterville police, including some Tingley directed there himself.

He said he now has his life back: “I have relationships with my children and my family again. All because of you and Operation HOPE. Please don’t ever stop what you guys are doing. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for believing in me and giving me this chance.”

Bonney then showed photos of former Waterville resident Emily Buker, who entered a Virginia treatment facility in 2017, homeless, unemployed, addicted to drugs, committing crimes to support her habit and hanging out with the wrong crowd. The photo of her before treatment showed a sad, tired, dull-eyed woman looking defeated. The “after” photo was of a smiling, exuberant, hopeful-looking Buker.

“I want to thank you for my new life!” she wrote to the Police Department last year.

In 2018, I interviewed Buker by telephone from Virginia, where she chose to stay. Then 28, she told me her life story and about how addiction nearly landed her in prison — and at death’s door. She is one of the lucky ones who got help and survived and she credits Operation HOPE.

I have kept in touch with Buker through Facebook and have watched as she underwent treatment, got a job, fell in love, had a beautiful baby and has a safe, comfortable home and a happy life. Each time I read one of her posts, I smile. Sometimes a chill runs down my spine, realizing just how lucky she is. Occasionally, I will tell her how proud I am of her.

Tingley and Buker might easily be our own relatives, neighbors, co-workers, friends. Addiction is a disease, not a choice, and like others who suffer from illness, they must receive treatment to get healthy.

Thanks to programs such as Operation HOPE and the wise people who recognize that addiction is an illness and know that treatment can save lives, there is hope.

But as Bonney and Massey said Tuesday, treatment is not cheap and the program cannot survive without grants and private donations.

Anyone searching for a charity or cause to donate to during this season of giving need look no further than Operation HOPE.

No matter the amount, that gift will help save someone’s life.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 31 years. Her columns appear here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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