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Coalition focuses on reducing drug deaths in Mon Valley | TribLIVE.com
Westmoreland

Coalition focuses on reducing drug deaths in Mon Valley

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, September 2, 2018 12:06 p.m
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Members of the Mon Valley Opioid Coalition meet to discuss the group with the media. From left to right: Erin Straw, research specialist at the Pennsylvania Overdose Opioid Overdose Reduction Technical Assistance Center; Jim Smith, Monessen police chief; Colleen Hughes, director of Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission; and Sarah Dunford, prevention specialist with Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission.
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The Mon Valley Opioid Coalition started in November 2017.

County lines should not be barriers to getting help for a drug addiction, officials said.

The Mon Valley Opioid Coalition is aimed at breaking down those borders dividing Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties while connecting with community members to offer support and hope.

“It’s a very unique coalition because it is just focusing mainly on the Mon Valley area of our counties,” said Colleen Hughes, coalition co-chairperson and director of the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission.

The coalition was born in November and has been meeting monthly with the help of University of Pittsburgh pharmacy school’s Pennsylvania Opioid Overdose Reduction Technical Assistance Center. Members of the group hope to over the next three years increase community education, awareness and access to opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, while reducing stigma associated with addiction and helping those in need get connected with treatment and recovery.

A variety of groups are part of the coalition, ranging from drug and alcohol officials and emergency services to clergy, prevention providers and people in recovery.

“It wasn’t so much what can I do to help my particular cause out, it’s what can we do to everyone’s cause out,” said Jim Smith, coalition co-chairperson and Monessen’s police chief.

Their first event Sept. 27 in Monessen will serve as a way to connect with the community. Officials are defining the Mon Valley as running along the Monongahela River from California and Brownsville to Monongahela and from Bentleyville to West Newton.

Belle Vernon Area High School students Talen Slebodnik and Ben Filak got involved to make a difference. Slebodnik, a junior, hopes to use his experience with a family member’s drug abuse as a way to help others.

“I wanted to find any way I could help prevent that from happening to anybody else,” he said. “I know the pain of it and I know how it feels.”

Filak, a senior, said he can offer a young person’s perspective to the coalition and help raise awareness of the problem among peers.

“When it comes to opioid use … our main role is to have a voice for the kids who are” doing it, he said.

Smith said he has seen recently a “significant reduction” in the amount of overdose calls and and drug-related deaths his department handles. According to Westmoreland County coroner statistics, eight people died in Monessen due to drug overdoses in 2016 and six people in 2017. Through Aug. 1, two people have died in the city.

“I truly believe in my heart we’ve had an impact on lessening deaths in the area,” he said.

In 2017, the ZIP code 15012 — which includes Belle Vernon — saw five deaths of 77 total in Fayette County. In 2017, the following municipalities, including Mon Valley Hospital in Carroll Township, had a total of 32 overdose deaths: California, Donora, Charleroi, Monongahela and New Eagle.

The previous year, 38 people died from a drug overdose in those same municipalities and the hospital, according to Washington Coroner statistics.

Total drug overdose deaths have been on the decrease this year in counties around the region.

“I’m pretty sure that there’s not a single person in this Mon Valley … that hasn’t been affected,” Smith said.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, rsignorini@tribweb.com or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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