With Essex County having the highest number of suspected overdose deaths in the state, Robin Lavorato knew something had to be done for those on the difficult road from addiction to recovery.
So she launched the Essex Opioid Task Force (OTF) in June 2018. The organization began with monthly meetings in different Essex County municipalities to bring awareness to the overdose epidemic. In June 2019, the OTF evolved into a non-profit Essex Health and Wellness Recovery Center -- the first in Essex County to focus only on recovery, rather than clinical care.
Though the organization was growing, it did not have a permanent home. Last week, surrounded by her board and members of law enforcement, Lavorato opened the Recovery Center in space donated by Saint Michael's Medical Center in Newark.
The Recovery Center is designed to help individuals who have completed addiction treatment or are re-entering the community after incarceration, said Lavorato, the Recovery Center’s executive director.
The Recovery Center will be on-call 24/7 to respond to emergency room needs and will provide guidance to individuals and families looking for alcohol and drug use detoxification and treatment.
“Those suffering from the disease of addiction may have completed treatment, but that is normally not enough," Lavorato said. "The recovery supports we offer will continue the care needed and hopefully prevent further substance use.”
Lavorato said the Recovery Center is focused on post-treatment.
"Our recovery guides and peer recovery specialists will work beside our participants,” Lavorato said. “We will assist with putting lives back together through housing search, obtaining education and employment, healthcare referrals, parenting classes, exercise and diet advice, support groups, workshops and trainings. We will offer sober recreation and more.”
Lavorato said the Recovery Center will also focus on prevention.
“Law enforcement is doing amazing work, the treatment providers are innovative in their clinical care, but we need to also prevent the onset of use,” she said. “The Recovery Center will offer prevention programs to schools, religious organizations, workplace and other community members.”
In 2019, there were 3,021 overdose deaths in New Jersey. Essex County had a total of 389 in 2019 – only two less than in 2018. Heroin, fentanyl and cocaine are the most common drugs found in people who have died in Essex County from an overdose.
Lavorato started monthly community awareness breakfasts at Saint Michael’s, where attendees hear about law enforcement’s initiatives to motivate offenders into treatment, treatment provider’s services and programs, and community support organizations.
“Most importantly, we hear from families who have lost loved ones, in an effort to truly understand what may have been a barrier to recovery,” Lavorato said. “And we applaud and learn from individuals who are in recovery.”
The OTF and the Recovery Center have also trained police, school staff, sober living homes and others in the administration of Naloxone, a medication that may reverse an opioid overdose. James Hunt, an Essex County resident and a retired Special Agent in Charge of the New York Drug Enforcement Administration, is the board president of the Recovery Center.
The OTF and Recovery Center have also responded to families, law enforcement, healthcare providers and others in assisting in motivating individuals into detox or treatment and assisting in finding the proper placement to be assessed. They have provided workshops, trainings and attended health fairs. They have also worked with Montclair High School students in creating an opioid awareness documentary, “Not My Choice”.
While the community awareness breakfasts were a great way to share information, Lavarato said she and her volunteers were working remotely in assisting law enforcement, schools, and community members. She felt a permanent location in Essex County was needed to provide services to more people.
Lavorato said she wanted to create a program similar to the Recovery Centers in surrounding counties. Union County’s Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery Center and Morris County’s Sheriff Gannon’s Recovery Initiatives have been a great support to the endeavor, she said.
Saint Michael’s CEO Robert Iannaccone, who attended many of the task forces’ breakfasts, said he offered some surplus office space in the hospital temporarily free of charge to help the program get its start.
“There is definitely a need in our community for the valuable services being offered by the Center,” Iannaccone said. “Since our mission is to meet the healthcare needs of our community, it makes sense for us to help get this Center off the ground.”
The Center will be funded through private grants and donations and has not yet sought government funding. Its services will be provided free of charge.
Saint Michael’s also offers an intensive outpatient substance abuse program for patients who are suffering from substance abuse and other co-occurring disorders as well as an outpatient therapeutic program.