Governor Baker praises Webster center that helps bring drug users back into society

Governor Charlie Baker tours the Worcester County Sheriff’s Regional Resource Center with Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis and Program Manager Byron Titus

By Brian Lee, Telegram and Gazette, April 6, 2017

WEBSTER — After Gov. Charlie Baker toured a sheriff’s resource center that supports people who are on probation and trying to stay off drugs, he said it had given him a lot to think about with respect to trying to replicate some of its offerings.

Mr. Baker, who signed landmark legislation to stem opioid addiction last year, was invited Thursday to the Webster Regional Resource Center by Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis.

The center, which reopened in January 2015 after having been closed for about two years, has become a hub for clients from Dudley, East Brookfield and Uxbridge courts. The program has served 202 clients from the Dudley court, 58 from East Brookfield and 30 from Uxbridge. Ten people have attained high school equivalency diplomas after participating in a HiSET education program led by Stacie Norton Bennett at the center.

The three courts that primarily use the program cover 32 towns.

The center serves people who are in the criminal justice system and opted for drug court instead of jail. The partnership between the courts and Harrington Hospital offers case management, educational classrooms, and a community room that’s generally open until 7 p.m., Mr. Evangelidis said. The center tests for drugs and immediately reports an offender back to court.

The sheriff said the program features accountability without judgment.

It also offers van service for people who need help getting to doctor’s appointments, job interviews, substance abuse classes and other services essential to a turnaround.

“No one else has ever done this,” Mr. Evangelidis said of the transportation component.

“We’re all in this together. We need to help each other, and this center, I believe, makes a difference in the entire region, helping people who have had some problems in life,” he said.

After the tour and a private roundtable discussion with four recent graduates, the governor said:

“The interesting thing about this, and part of the reason why it’s working is, you have all of the various folks who touch these people who are trying to make changes going in the same direction and supporting them and staying with it.”

Mr. Baker said all the steps in the process of sobriety, finding and keeping a job, and housing were represented.

“It’s pretty clear from talking to all the folks that are involved that they’re having some real success,” he said.

Mr. Baker said he appreciated the chance to talk to four women who graduated last week.

Chelsea Cole, 27, and Kelsey Violette, 22, both of Northbridge, sat down with Mr. Baker for the roundtable, which was off limits to the press.

Ms. Cole said the center helped her gain a sense of empowerment. She said opioids once ran her life.

“I actually have dreams, aspirations and goals,” she said of enrolling at Quinsigamond Community College to pursue an associate’s degree in human services.

“This program has helped me so much with going back to school and identifying what I want to do with my life,” she said.

Ms. Violette, who works in finance and insurance for a car dealership, credited the program for helping her regain her life.

“I was alive, but I wasn’t living,” she said. “I gained my family back, I gained respect, I gained trust. I’m a positive part of the community. I’m just a normal person now. Being a part of criminal activity for so long and living a life … I don’t know how to explain it. You’re in such a negative place.”

Elizabeth Hopkins, 36, of Spencer, an attendee of the East Brookfield drug court, said she was originally due to graduate in August, but is doing so well that graduation has been moved up to May.

Ms. Hopkins said she has plans to enroll in an online program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston for alcohol and drug counseling.

Ms. Hopkins says she is an alcoholic and heroin addict. She said she began using Percocet nine years ago to treat pain from a Cesarean section. It escalated to using cocaine, crack cocaine and ultimately injecting heroin.

She contracted a flesh-eating bacteria infection, which almost caused her to almost lose her arm, but even that didn’t get her to stop, she said.

Ms. Hopkins called her relationships with the drug court and sheriff’s office center “very calming.”

Ms. Hopkins said she does not have a relationship with her blood family.

“This has been an extended family,” she said, singling out her counselors, Center Director Byron Titus and East Brookfield Judge Maura McCarthy.

The judge returned the compliment.

“They are a fabulous group, and they are doing so well,” Judge McCarthy said.

The judge said one of the biggest keys is the sheriff’s provision of transportation. While it is possible for a client to walk from Dudley District Court to the Webster center, Judge McCarthy said transportation was crucial for East Brookfield clients, who come from rural communities such as New Braintree and Warren.

Of the help the clients get with medical treatment, resumes and job interviews, Judge McCarthy said, “I can’t say enough about the real impact that they have had on human lives. I know kids have been saved.”

The reopening of the center was not without controversy.

Many residents and local officials were against its reopening. They argued that it should be placed in another community, because it was viewed as drawing people in the court system to live in Webster.

Chairman of the Board of Selectman Donald D. Bourque said during the governor’s tour that he was initially against the center’s return to town. But since learning about what the program does, he embraces it.

Mr. Evangelidis, meanwhile, said he stayed the course in the face of pushback from the public because “I believed in what this could do.”

“Every community should have a center like this,” if funding wasn’t a factor, he said.