Conversation piece

Wright State plays key role in Conversations for Change, helping people struggling with heroin addiction

From left: Wright State graduate student Jordan Umphrey; Mary Huber, associate professor of human services; and Wright State alumna Emily Surico support Conversations for Change, which helps people struggling with heroin addiction in Dayton. (Photo by Erin Pence)

A pioneering program with strong Wright State University connections that supports, educates and provides resources to people struggling with heroin addiction is deepening its roots in the Dayton community.

Conversations for Change, which was launched in May 2014, is part of East End Community Services, a nonprofit that offers housing development, community building, educational initiatives and other services.

Among those supporting Conversations for Change is Mary Huber, associate professor of human services; Jordan Umphrey, who is pursuing her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling with a concentration in chemical dependency; and Wright State alumna Emily Surico, program manager at East End and coordinator of Conversations.

“We wanted to give individuals the opportunity to have conversations with no judgment, no stigma, no fear and demonstrating that there is a community that cares for them,” said Surico. “It started with three or four of us in a room and has expanded up to 30 different partners.”

Conversations was launched with a grant from the Justice Department to develop strategies to address crime and drug prevention.

“It started in this community because we were hit the hardest with the number of fatal overdoses and accidental overdoses. It was destroying our community,” said Surico.

Conversations gives people addicted to heroin, as well as their family and friends, an opportunity every other month to come to Linden Avenue Baptist Church in east Dayton, have a meal and be introduced to service providers, such as those providing housing and health insurance.

“We really wanted to reduce stigma associated with addiction, but also to help people access the help that they needed and wanted,” said Surico, who has her master’s degree in public health from Wright State and spent 10 years working with Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants as part of the Head Start program.

The first two-hour Conversations session only drew two participants. Today, up to 60 people attend each event. More than 20 sessions have been held so far.

“They are not coming to the events necessarily for treatment,” said Surico. “They’re coming to have a safe place to communicate. They’re coming because they don’t understand the resources that are out there. And many of the friends and families are coming because they want to help, but they don’t know what to do.”

Through Conversations for Change, people addicted to heroin, as well as their family and friends,can gather for a meal and learn about to service providers, such as those providing housing and health insurance.

Conversations for Change takes a “harm-reduction” approach. Participants are trained in the administration — and given free kits — of naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdoses.

But Conversations also tries to motivate participants into getting treatment. Participants are able to meet one-on-one with trained mediators to aid in recovery. And the sessions include testimonials from recovering addicts and a medical talk from a nurse on heroin addiction as a disease.

Dayton police officers have been a huge partner in trying to get help for addicts. Officers invite overdose victims to the sessions and volunteer at the events. And while Conversations deals primarily with opiate addiction, it offers counseling and support to those with any form of addiction.

Some of Huber’s graduate students have volunteered to help with Conversations.

“It’s been an amazing experience for them because they’ve never seen this,” she said. “It’s way beyond book-learning. And the volunteer experience shapes the end of their college career.”

Huber received her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and earned her Ph.D. in statistics measurement and research design. She joined the faculty at Wright State in 2013.

Huber says the Conversations sessions can be intense.

“For me, I’m monitoring my students, I’m running and helping with the food, I’m getting people into mediation,” she said. “We’re just all working together as a team.”

Umphrey believes the experience will help her in her career.

“I think it gives me a more realistic look at what the community needs, how many people need help,” she said.

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