By Chris Cole
A few weeks into his Social Work 405: Community Organizations class in early 2013, a light bulb went off for Jason Merrick and he realized something special was happening. It was his sophomore year at Northern Kentucky University and Merrick was excited to be in his first semester of core social work courses.
It was a hectic time for the self-described student activist and community organizer. Less than four years earlier, he said, the Columbus, Ohio, native “crash-landed [in Cincinnati] broke, homeless, and lost.” He found himself at Transitions Grateful Life Center and entered a 13-month residency program there. They told him if he wanted to get his life together, he needed to finish the program, register in school, and get a job working in the field. He took that advice to heart.
After completing Transitions, Merrick was hired as a residential monitor for the agency. He also enrolled in the NKU social work program. Not long after, he was asked to serve as chairman of the Northern Kentucky chapter of PAR (People Advocating Recovery), an organization working to eliminate barriers to recovery from addiction.
“The commonwealth was open-armed,” he said. “I’ve found fellowship, friendship, family, and sobriety here.”
According to an article he authored this spring in the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, the number of local babies treated for drug withdrawal doubled from 2011 to 2012 and the number of overdose cases treated through the St. Elizabeth Healthcare systems increased by 77 percent in 2012. And the number of heroin overdose cases through August of last year, he wrote, had already nearly doubled the 2012 rate. Statewide, the number of heroin overdose deaths increased by 550 percent between 2011 and 2012.
With northern Kentucky identified by many as “heroin ground zero,” chairing the region’s PAR was a pretty important job for a college student. But for Merrick, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
“An interesting characteristic of my student activist/community organizer journey has been the uncanny parallels between my studies and real-life experiences,” he said. “As the semester progressed I was able to study community organizations while building a real world grassroots community organization. The two experiences paralleled one another seamlessly.”
NKU student Jason Merrick serves as chairman of the Northern Kentucky chapter of PAR (People Advocating Recovery), an organization working to eliminate barriers to recovery from addiction.
At the inaugural meeting of the Northern Kentucky PAR, 250 concerned citizens attended. The organization quickly began developing an action plan that started with advocacy for House Bill 366, which allowed for public prescription and distribution of Naloxone, a drug that temporarily reverses the effects of a potentially fatal opiate overdose. PAR mounted a campaign of letters, emails, and phone calls that helped get the bill passed quickly and Gov. Steve Beshear signed it into law in July 2013.
“I was able to use my experience in the field to fuel my academic requirements and use my academic accomplishments to better understand my fieldwork,” he said. “A more closely related class-to-real-world experience could not have been choreographed this well.”
The development of a Naloxone nasal delivery system paved the way for public distribution once PAR had a system in place. The organization rallied local agencies and other coalitions to secure office space in Falmouth, Ky., and assembled a team of health care professionals, pharmacists, social workers, and recovery advocates that covered every aspect of intervention. Dr. Jeremy Engel of Bellevue became the first doctor in the state willing to prescribe and distribute Naloxone Rescue Kits, which consist of two 2-millileter doses of the drug; step-by-step instructions covering everything from an initial 911 call through administering the medication; a nasal atomizer delivery device; a rescue breathing mask; latex gloves; and a contact list for local treatment resources.
Transitions helped the organization develop the necessary paperwork, and volunteers perform on-site triage care and training on identifying and treating an overdose. Others donated time, space, furniture, food, energy, and money. Clients of the clinic are assigned a personal guide to help navigate the paperwork, training, examinations, and prescription. After training on calling 911, identifying an overdose, rescue breathing (taught with a real CPR dummy), hands-on atomizer assembly, medication administration, and a short video, clients undergo a brief examination and receive their prescriptions and rescue kits. The entire process takes about half an hour.
For Merrick, it presented another light-bulb moment. “Through the first few [Social Work 407: Social Welfare Policy] classes, I found that my greatest challenge was to visualize a complete social welfare program,” he said. “Where did it begin? What was its driving force? How did it gain traction? Where does the money come from? How is it implemented, and who oversees the process?
“As a community organizer, I was working to develop a social welfare policy without even realizing it,” he continued. He was analyzing data from the National School Lunch Program. “It hit me one day…that this was it,” he said. “This is what we are working on. This is policy in the making.”
PAR has distributed 50 kits to date, and at least one has been used to save a young man’s life. His mother found him overdosed in their home and administered the Nalaxone. “Kinda makes it all worthwhile when you know a life has been saved,” Merrick said.
One lesson he said he’s learned is that as any good movement gains momentum, people see and understand something needs to be done. And when an option presents itself that people believe in, they naturally gravitate toward supporting it. For the Northern Kentucky PAR, it didn’t take very long. “The heroin problem is no longer just the guy under the bridge,” he said. “It’s now our teenagers. They’re going straight from smoking pot to shooting heroin and they’re dying from it. It affects families without regard to status, income, family composition, race, faith, or location.
“The community has embraced the effort by developing a proposed social welfare policy that encompasses not only harm reduction, but also prevention, treatment, recovery, and advocacy,” Merrick said. That policy, available at http://drugfreenky.org, is built on those five strategic platforms.
His goal: to eliminate the shame, stigma, and discrimination of addiction. “Addiction is a disease that should be treated like cancer or diabetes,” he said. “We’re going to turn this disease into a situation where people can live with it rather than overdosing and dying.”
Merrick credits his teachers, faculty and professional mentors, and fellow NKU students for making the Northern Kentucky PAR a success. “The overall support has been an uplifting inspiration and fueled my understanding of what a college education ought to be,” he said. “I came to Northern Kentucky University not just for a degree, but for the opportunity to serve my fellow men, women, and children. The value of human life and our accomplishments cannot only be seen within its hallways, classrooms, and communities, but also in the minds and hearts of our students and faculty.”