Big money battles big problem — drug dependency

$680,000 opioid-crisis grant will help retrain recovering users for jobs, provide low-cost labor

More than a half million dollars in state and federal funds are coming in to directly help area individuals recovering from heroin and opioid dependency, as well as helping families affected by the nationwide drug crisis.

The grant announced recently includes an award of up to $681,146 to BEST Inc. on behalf of NCI Works to hire five people to help families and individuals in an eight-county area, and to help 30 people re-enter the workforce after going through treatment.

“We’re going to be employing five positions that are going to actually be working with that population,” said Pam Furlan, executive director of Business Employment Skills Team (BEST), which serves LaSalle, Bureau, Putnam, Lee, Carroll, Jo Daviess, Ogle and Whiteside counties.

The funds coming in through Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity from the U.S. Department of Labor will pay for two job coaches and trainers, put 30 recovering individuals to work in the region, and employ two nurses to provide patient support and to assist practical nurses at three Sinnissippi treatment centers located in Dixon, Sterling and Oregon, Ill.

The Department of Labor specifically calls these funds an opioid-crisis Dislocated Worker Grant.

“Something we’re going to be doing locally is working with Perfectly Flawed and hiring an education coordinator for them who would go out into the community and they would be working with families who are impacted, providing support, providing education to the community,” Furlan said.

Luke Tomsha, founder and executive director of LaSalle-based Perfectly Flawed Foundation, said he’s pleased that his relatively new organization is being put in a position to help more individuals and families.

He also likes the approach BEST Inc. is taking with this program.

“I think it’s awesome. I think it’s important that we build supportive services and provide pathways for people to make re-entry, to be active members in the community and gainfully employed,” Tomsha said.

To date, Perfectly Flawed and Tomsha have been active in local education, direct support to users or people in recovery, outreach to children affected by family members struggling with drug problems, and lobbying and getting involved in state and national efforts to improve governmental response to the opioid crisis.

Tomsha, a former drug user, said one of his struggles in recovery was adapting to a new way of life.

The grant enables BEST to hire a person for Perfectly Flawed for a wide variety of tasks. Just a few of those include job-finding assistance, budgeting assistance, helping individuals to re-adapt to a new life and helping guide and support their efforts to realign on a positive path, and working as a liaison between an individual and family members so they understand opioid use and can develop supportive relationships.

“We serve as peer navigators as an entry point for people who are struggling and don’t know where to turn,” Tomsha said.

The two job coaches will be based out of two of the 10 BEST offices — which offices will depend on need and data BEST gathers in the weeks to come.

“They will work to place another approximately 30 people who have successfully completed a recovery regimen and will be ready to be re-integrated into the community,” Furlan said.

BEST hopes local employers welcome the new, temporary for now, employees placed by BEST.

“One of the stakeholders we really need are our local businesses. We need the local businesses to offer their sites to employ these individuals,” Furlan said.

Employers could benefit tremendously, with low-cost hires, as the program provides a tangible incentive.

“We will pay the wages and we will also pay the FICA and workers’ comp. BEST will be the employer for up to a year,” Furlan said. “Our job coaches, part of their responsibility will be to work with the employers, the supervisors and managers, to help them understand these people may need a little more oversight or support to make sure they stay on their career path.”

The grant funds kicked in Nov. 1, and the program is scheduled to end June 30, 2020.

“There’s always a chance with Department of Labor grants for them to be extended,” Furlan said.

Tomsha is hopeful this program will help strengthen the workforce and increase the number of employable people in the community.

“Helping people understand the impact that drug use can have on a community is important,” Tomsha said.

According to the press release and announcement, “BEST will enlist the assistance of area agencies that deal with mental health and substance abuse to make referrals to the new program. It will also be recruiting area businesses that are interested in serving as worksites for subsidized employment opportunities as well as those that are able to provide unsubsidized employment for individuals who are prepared to enter self-sustaining employment critical to a stable recovery.”

Interested individuals and businesses can obtain more information by contacting Pam Furlan at 815-224-0375, or visiting the NCI Works website at www.nciworks.org.

Furlan said regions including Will County, Cook County, the Galesburg and Quincy area and Decatur also applied for and received the grants.