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‘This is recovery’: At annual softball tournament, coalfields recovery community shares hope

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‘This is recovery’: At annual softball tournament, coalfields recovery community shares hope

Jun 10, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Caity Coyne
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‘This is recovery’: At annual softball tournament, coalfields recovery community shares hope
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Players from the Homerun Honeys play the field against Jalapeño Business during a softball tournament Friday, June 7, 2024, in Danville, W.Va. (Chris Jackson | West Virginia Watch)

DANVILLE — Last Friday afternoon, the sun was bright at Lick Creek Park as dozens of softball players from four coalfield counties took to the baseball fields to continue a one-of-a-kind annual tradition for the 11th year.

Among the players and their supporters were judges, prosecutors, peer recovery coaches, law enforcement officers, clients for recovery programs and more split into eight teams. They laughed together as outfielders missed balls and batters struck out on the underhand pitches. When a player hit a ball out of the field, they cheered.

For many in Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Mingo counties, this is what recovery from substance use disorder looks like.

“What we’re doing here in the coalfields, what we’ve been able to do, it’s the example of what can be done,” said Amber Blankenship, director of the Logan County Quick Response Team, who is in recovery. “There’s nothing else like this. We don’t all agree. We are often on opposite sides of each other. But we know we have to work together to help people who are struggling and our people are struggling.”

‘This is recovery’: At annual softball tournament, coalfields recovery community shares hope
Elly Donahue, a peer recovery specialist in Southern West Virginia, walks off the playing field during Friday’s 11th annual Southwestern Regional Day Report Center Softball Tournament. Donahue, who has been in recovery for more than a decade, has been participating in the tournament since it began. (Chris Jackson | West Virginia Watch)

Elly Donahue, a peer recovery specialist who works at programs throughout Lincoln and Logan counties, has participated in the Southwestern Regional Day Report Center Softball Tournament since its inception. A 2013 graduate of the Boone County drug court, she said the tournament has grown immensely. With that growth, she said, has come a chance for education and an opportunity to break down stigma and barriers that can harm people who use drugs.

“When we’re out here, we’re — literally — on the same playing field,” Donahue said. “We’re seeing people out of the roles we’re used to seeing them in. We don’t look at each other as being different. There is stigma attached to addiction and recovery, this breaks that down for everyone.”

Will Thompson, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, helped create the softball tournament when he served as Boone County circuit judge. In that position, Thompson oversaw the region’s first adult drug court in 2008. Later, in 2019, he was instrumental in initiating a pilot program for family treatment courts that have now spread throughout the state where they are helping to reunite families affected by addiction.

Looking out at the crowd on Friday, Thompson noted that it was difficult to differentiate between members of the judicial system and law enforcement and those who are in recovery programs.

“An event like this shows how addiction affects all levels of society in the coalfields,” Thompson said. “No one is spared. But look at all these people who’ve come today. It speaks volumes about the character of the coalfields, of how special this place is.”

‘We need to look at recovery as a whole circle’

The southern coalfield counties were hit especially hard by the drug and overdose epidemic that has taken hold in West Virginia over the last two decades. Pharmaceutical companies targeted the region in the early 2000s, dumping millions of pain pills into the sparsely populated communities. When the government began cracking down on the pills, those who had become addicted to the drugs were forced to switch to cheaper, illegal alternatives, fueling the next era of addiction with meth and heroin.

Millions of dollars are now available to communities from litigation with those pharmaceutical companies. The money is meant to address the epidemic, which has grown even more dangerous in recent years as fentanyl and xylazine taint the unregulated market, causing more fatal overdoses.

Those who have lived addiction experience, however, worry that the money could go to the wrong places.

Donahue, who has been in recovery for more than a decade, let out a humorless laugh when asked what she would like to see funded with the dollars now available, which may total more than $8.5 million between Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Mingo counties alone. Those funds — which went directly to counties and municipalities — are separate from the money that will eventually be distributed across the state by the West Virginia First Foundation

“I know a lot of communities are paying, or talking about paying, their jail bills with the settlement funds,” Donahue said. “I don’t know how that helps the community at all. How that helps the people.”

Jail bills, by and large, are the biggest expense for most communities in West Virginia. They’re calculated based on how many people are incarcerated from each region. For small counties where revenue is low and coal severance tax payments are on the decline, it’s difficult to come up with the money.

But, Donahue said, using these funds to pay the jail bills one time will do nothing to decrease their costs in the future. The only way to tackle that, she said, is by investing in programs to prevent substance use disorder and supporting those that directly serve people in recovery. She believes over time, that would lower the number of incarcerated people in the region, bringing down jail bills long term rather than only for a year or two.

“That’s how you get fewer people in jail, that’s how we get those costs down,” Donahue said. “We need to look at recovery as a whole circle. There isn’t one thing that is going to fix everything. We need to take all these small parts, fit them together and heal our communities from within, working side by side with each other.”

‘This is recovery’: At annual softball tournament, coalfields recovery community shares hope
Amber Blankenship (left) laughs at a comment from colleague Elly Donahue while playing first base for the Homerun Honeys during Friday’s softball tournament. Blankenship’s team was made up of all women, many of whom are participants in Project Empower, a program for pregnant and parenting people impacted by the drug epidemic in Southern West Virginia. (Chris Jackson | West Virginia Watch)

Blankenship said it was “extremely irresponsible” to consider distributing funds in a way that centers law enforcement or jails over the people who are actually being incarcerated. She noted the recent struggles within West Virginia’s correctional system, where several lawsuits have been filed alleging mistreatment of the people incarcerated.

“Why give more money to that kind of system? We know we can’t arrest our way out of this. Pretending we can is only going to cost more people their lives,” Blankenship said. “We need to see this support come to grassroots organizations, people who’ve been doing this work for years and who know what it takes.”

Response to addiction needs to be ‘kind and loving’

When it comes to substance use disorder, the needs in the coalfields aren’t much different than the needs of the rest of the state: there is a lack of treatment beds available, transportation is difficult to access, housing options for people in recovery are few and stigma still prevails, meaning fewer opportunities for the thousands of people living with the illness.

What is different in the coalfields, however, are the efforts to address these gaps. Programs here, funded mostly through grants and reliant on the dedication and sacrifices of the people who operate them, are like no other in the state.

“Our approach to what works in the recovery field is not to overcomplicate it. The response to addiction needs to be simple. It needs to be kind and loving,” said Michelle Akers, executive director of the day report center. “If you get all of those things, if you build a program around those principles, I promise you will see a change.”

Akers helped found Fresh Start, an agricultural program based in Logan for people with opioid use disorder. Clients in the program spend hours each week cultivating a garden and growing fresh produce that they then deliver to Hungry Lambs Food Pantry to be distributed among the community.

What started as a few patches of soil and seeds has expanded greatly in the last few years. There is now a greenhouse on site, letting them grow fresh produce — a deep need in the region, which struggles with food insecurity — year round.

By donating to the pantry, Akers said, clients in the program are able to reinvest in their communities.

“That’s what recovery is about: getting back into your community, being accepted back in a positive way,” Akers said. “No matter how many people enter recovery, if we can’t get them oriented back into communities as peers, we’re not going to be as successful as we need to be.”

And the successes, when they happen, are evident. 

One program, Reverse the Cycle, places peer recovery coaches at hospitals throughout the coalfields with funding from Charleston-based Solutions Oriented Addiction Response.

If they need food, clothes or shelter, the recovery specialist knows who to call to help. If they’re ready to enter a rehabilitation program, they coordinate logistics to do so right in the hospital. 

‘This is recovery’: At annual softball tournament, coalfields recovery community shares hope
Michelle Akers, executive director of the Southwestern Regional Day Report Center, stands near the shelter at Lick Creek Park during the softball tournament on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Chris Jackson | West Virginia Watch)

“We have people there in the ER, ready to meet anyone where they’re at when they’re flagged for certain drugs or an overdose,” Donahue said. “We’re cutting down on their future visits to the hospital, we’re giving them a lifeline at a point that maybe they’re ready to pick it up.”

Project Empower, a program started in 2021 through a federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant, offers family planning and treatment support to pregnant and parenting people who are impacted by substance use disorder.

Since launching, Akers said, the program has reunited 24 families in the region and at least 14 babies have been born without neonatal abstinence syndrome who otherwise may have been.

“Those are real results,” Akers said. “Those are lives that have been changed.”

And the program, like the softball tournament, is about more than just the technical pieces of recovery. Each week, women in Project Empower participate in community events together. They go to movies, get their nails done, do craft nights and more.

“They’re building a community with each other. They’re re-engaging with the community around them,” Akers said. “This is recovery, fullstop.”

Learning from each other

On Friday, Akers worked as a manager of sorts for the softball tournament, organizing the brackets and announcing what teams would play on what fields.

As she paused the music to announce the second-to-last round of games, players from teams already disqualified sat on bleachers and under the shelter at the park. They laughed together as their children ran around them. Some played catch and others waited in line for freshly grilled hotdogs and hamburgers. It was a family affair.

Trena Dingess, a Boone County resident and peer recovery coach who is in recovery herself, said it was hard not to be nervous as she looked out on the fields and saw familiar faces from the criminal justice system.

“They’re good at making us feel comfortable, though. I think we all have something we can learn from each other, but it’s hard to do that sometimes, especially when everyone has such different experiences,” Dingess said. “This kind of day brings us all together. We can show everyone that you can be in recovery and have fun.”

‘This is recovery’: At annual softball tournament, coalfields recovery community shares hope
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Will Thompson (right) walks off the field after his team’s loss to Hit Happens. Thompson served as a longtime circuit judge in Boone County, where he started the softball tournament, before taking his current federal position. (Chris Jackson | West Virginia Watch)

Dingess has been in recovery for the last four years. She was sober for more than eight years before relapsing, which for many is a normal part of the recovery process.

Born and raised in the coalfields, she said it’s normal to feel a bit looked down on by the rest of the state these days. When coal boomed, so did the region. Since its decline, the area and the people living in it often feel left behind.

“People look at us like we don’t know a lot. Like we don’t have a lot. Like we’re just a little place with little resources,” Dingess said. “It can be easy to feel forgotten down here.”

But the progress that’s been made for addiction and recovery in the coalfields is a testament to what can be done when those working on the issues get creative, Donahue said. It’s a matter of ensuring that everyone is working on the same goals and while resources to do so can be difficult to access it’s not impossible.

Akers said the money available now could elevate those efforts in a meaningful way.

“My hope is that the opioid settlement money goes back to the people who were harmed throughout this epidemic,” Akers said.

Thompson, looking back at nearly two decades of work serving people affected by the epidemic, reflected on how little funding was available for the region for programs. Many people — himself included when it came to the drug courts — donated their time and leadership to start new things.

“We did all this with no money, with very little money available,” Thompson said. “Imagine what you could do with more money. Anything is possible.”