Saturday, February 21, 2015

Taking the Temperature of Advocacy Efforts in New Jersey

The New Year is always an important time for us to take a look at our own lives and see where we want to improve.  We tend to review the prior year, revisit memories, and challenge ourselves to improve different aspects of our lives.

That got me thinking about the advocacy efforts in New Jersey as a whole, and I was able to take a look at where we began, where we are now, and hopefully where we can go in the future.  

January 1st 2010 was my first day working as an NCADD-NJ Advocacy Field Organizer.  Five years ago I moved out of a state I lived in my whole life (Rhode Island), away from my family, friends, and band, to be a part of building a grassroots constituency in New Jersey.  NCADD-NJ is, to my knowledge, the only organization that has field organizers responsible for advocacy that aims to highlight addiction solutions.  All I knew moving here five years ago was that it was unique and I was in store for something that could be really special.

Turns out that feeling was right, and here is why.

I knew only a hand full of people in New Jersey, but I came to Jersey with a plan. 

I called it the “Ease (E’s) of Evolution” plan, and I wanted it to outline how we can effectively produce change together that can help generations of individuals to come. 
The “Ease (E’s) of Evolution” plan is simple if everyone plays a role
Let’s take a look at the first two steps of the plan-(E)mpower and (E)ducate

Through the opportunity to run an advocacy program I have met hundreds of dedicated individuals in recovery, family members, specialists in the prevention/treatment/recovery field that have participated in the progress we have seen in Jersey. 

That is YOU.  Without you, the whole Ease of Evolution plan is not easy at all - in fact, it is impossible.  There is a reason Empower is the very first step in this plan because the people NCADD-NJ has attracted are dedicated to volunteerism, to treating addiction as a health issue, and to forwarding social change.  If this voice could be developed and advocates could be empowered we had a beginning.

We had to find like-minded advocates who could be a face and voice as a recognized and organized constituency.  I think in the work we do as advocates, it is easy to feel alone in our efforts, and sometimes as individuals we feel like we  don’t/can’t really make a difference.  The reason I’m writing this blog post is to show you how you do make a difference individually and collectively.
I had no idea that the advocates so far were more than capable to raise the bar in New Jersey.  In fact, when I travel out of state, there are people who know of and recognize the grassroots efforts and victories seen here in New Jersey.  Knowing that others are paying attention makes the work we do every day as advocates even more important.

In the past five years I have seen advocates in Jersey do the following:

·         Organize over 60 community events in New Jersey that highlight solutions to addiction issues they care about focusing on overdose prevention, reducing stigma, addiction as a health issue, access to care, insurance discrimination, reducing recidivism, many pathways to recovery (just to name a few)

·         Attend over 300 regional advocacy team meetings (averaging about 8 a month)

·         Provide public testimony HUNDREDS of times to the Department of Human Services as well as at the statehouse and public budget hearings.  We now see legislators tracking advocates down after testimonies to get a better feel for their solutions and ideas.

·         Make April’s Alcohol Awareness Month and September’s Recovery Month meaningful advocacy opportunities to create awareness

·         Attend countless legislative office visits

·         Partake in non partisan civic engagement during election season (voter and candidate education, as well as voting)

·         Go to the State House to share their story with legislators.

·         Work tirelessly to get the life saving opiate overdose reverser NARCAN into the hands of family members with at risk individuals in their house, first responders, law enforcement and anyone who can one day save a life from overdose.

·         Attend more than 50 NCADD-NJ trainings that were offered over the years throughout the state.
·         Embark on letter writing campaigns to elected officials

·         Deliver thousands of postcards to legislative offices and the Governor’s office on why increased funding on addiction services matters.

·         Work within schools to reach young populations to share experiences on solutions to addiction and alcoholism.

·         Advocate for the opening of NJ’s first Recovery High School, collegiate recovery spaces, and more peer to peer Recovery Community Centers.

·         Submit Letters to the Editor

·         Start their own advocacy efforts and get involved with other amazing groups/efforts that are doing amazing work in New Jersey. (Help not Handcuffs, Young People in Recovery Chapters, The Overdose Prevention Agency Corporation, Parent to Parent, Overdose Prevention Campaign)

·         Provide grassroots support for legislative victories like the Overdose Prevention Act, Expungement Legislation, State Parity Laws, Road to recovery Campaign advances , policies that expand the continuum of care for people struggling with addiction, drug court expansion, legislation that addresses the prescription drug epidemic, and bills that help people in recovery overcome barriers like the Opportunity to Compete Act.

This is what the premiere grassroots advocacy organization looks like in New Jersey.

Everything that advocates have done locally adds up.  I am fortunate to travel the state and work with ten different volunteer advocacy teams across New Jersey, so I get to witness the bigger picture.  We have even added new staff to the advocacy program (Hi Mariel Harrison!) because the program has grown out of its shell, as we went from eight teams to ten, with advocates in every legislative district in the state. 

These advocates in the process of speaking out have educated the public, lawmakers, and community decision-makers like law enforcement officers, and even people working in the courts or school system.  They are a resource to those making decisions on their behalf.

These advocates who have contributed in one way or another over the years to changing the landscape are amazing.   

And they won’t ever stop because they know that somewhere right now someone is struggling with addiction, or that advocacy helps their own recovery, or some young person is taking their first drink, or a family member lost someone they loved and their lives will never be the same as a result. 

Let’s get to the last step

This is the slowest part to the entire plan, isn’t it?

When so many people’s lives are affected by addiction, solutions can never come fast enough.  It is so easy to get frustrated in the process of social change, because we often feel defeats spread out between victories.

I saw a presentation not too long ago that was talking about the elements of social change.  The presentation stated that you needed three elements to be working together in harmony to get any sort of social change.   The three elements were Policy, Electorate, and Grassroots. 

I do think that we have a unique climate in New Jersey today as a result of good advocacy, and elected officials starting to take the addiction epidemic seriously and work together towards reform to curb overdoses and fund important prevention, treatment expansions and recovery support services.   We have an approach being advocated for that brings together everyone from the electorate, to the family members, to the police officers, to health professionals, to the court system, to the people in recovery, and even educators and faith based community.  It is an effort that everyone can be a part of and pitch in towards solutions towards good sound public policy that will save lives.

When I think about evolving we have to really think about vision.

Imagine a New Jersey that:

Has recovery friendly environments like peer-to-peer recovery centers in every county, or more recovery supportive environments for young people at the middle school, high school, and college levels;

Has NARCAN in every first aid kit in every household in the state, in addition to being in the hands of every possible first responder including all police officers;

Has treatment on demand, and where waiting lists don’t even exist for the level of care someone needs;

Has support for the family members as well as the addicted, or persons in recovery.

Imagine a New Jersey that:

Doesn’t stigmatize people just for having an illness …

Doesn’t have insurance companies that deny people life saving medical treatment because they aren’t sick enough, or they haven’t “failed” outpatient first, or they aren’t considered medically necessary to obtain treatment by someone who has never met them…

Doesn’t lock sick people up for not-violent crimes and deny help for the root cause of the non-violent crime in the first place..

Are we there yet?  No.

Have we made progress?  Most certainly.

The advocates took this plan and made it a whole lot bigger than this guy from Rhode Island ever thought.  And we aren’t even close to done yet, because I know these advocates are dedicated.
Thank you all for being a part and let’s keep moving forward.

One of my favorite parts to the advocacy program has always been that the advocates designate what gets worked on. 

What do you want your New Jersey to look like?  

Now let’s make it happen together. 

I am happy to announce that NCADD-NJ have found organizations that believe in your advocacy efforts so much that they have agreed to sponsor the first ever statewide advocacy summit at the end of 2015.

Have you ever wondered what it would look like to get all of us in the same room?  I have, and at the 2015 Advocacy Summit we will make that thought a reality.

 This summit will be for you, the grassroots advocate. 

More news to come.

Aaron Kucharski is the NCADD-NJ Advocacy Coordinator
If you want to get involved with one of the advocacy teams in New Jersey just email or

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Talking Behavioral Health- When Bringing your Work Home is Okay

 As the communications specialist for NCADD- NJ, I see the many facets of addiction issues; from prevention to recovery supports, and all the obstacles in between. We try, on a larger scale, to address addiction from a moral standpoint by fighting stigma while promoting addiction as a brain disease rather than as a moral weakness. We work at the legislative level to increase addiction treatment funding and have hundreds of advocates working together for effective change.

As we do these things, it becomes increasingly clear to me that part of the reason we have our work cut out for us is that in order to create societal movement on a macro level, we need to change things on a micro level first, and consistently.  Among the public awareness efforts is the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment grant, an early intervention model, which is geared toward 15-22 year olds, and the Consumer Voices for Coverage grant that assists individuals to get health care coverage. At different times during the day, I become acutely aware that educating my own children about these issues is much more difficult than educating the public.

A Family History

Our genetics, sometimes fortunately and sometimes unfortunately, can determine our fate.

When I went to my last physical, my doctor’s office had gone digital, so I was asked for my family history once again. No problem. I thought it may need to be updated after a decade anyway. I couldn’t help but notice that there were no questions about behavioral health. Odd, I thought to myself. It so greatly impacted so many of my family members. This led me to think of my oldest child, my 14-year-old son, who has bi-polar disorder. I can easily tell him that addiction and mental illness runs in his family, but might it have a greater impact to him if it were on the family history portion of his health record as an illness? After all, he voices concern over diabetes in our family. If behavioral health- or behavioral illness- cost our health care system so much money, why wouldn’t that question be on health records? At least we would be starting somewhere to raise awareness.

This link on integrated care is from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

My son recently learned that two family members took their lives as a direct result of behavioral health issues. So I came out and said it: “Look, if you choose to ever drink alcohol or use substances, you are taking a big risk and that is fact. We have proof there is a strong genetic component to addiction and quite frankly, the odds are not in your favor.  This is not I am making up to scare you out of doing something bad. If heart disease was in the family I would be telling you the same thing.” It drives me crazy that as far as we have come technologically, we (the powers that be) still don’t integrate health care or see human beings as a comprehensive puzzle.

I don’t know if my candid talk will actually help him make healthy decisions in terms of substances or not, but I know that my conscience is clear since I have started down a path of open communication with my son. There are times when one may think it is easier to avoid these harsh truths. But at what cost?