JOLT Foundation settles into new Peoria HQ amid rising need for harm reduction services
It's been nearly 10 years since Joshua Olt died from a heroin overdose.
In April 2012, the Peoria County 16-year-old was one of the nearly millions of Americans to die from a drug overdose between 1999-2019.
Soon after their son's death, Blake and Dr. Tamara Olt created the JOLT Foundation, a harm reduction services nonprofit aimed at helping people struggling with substance use disorder.
For several years JOLT Foundation was located along the Illinois River in the industrial section of Peoria's North Valley neighborhood. The nonprofit serves between 500 and 700 people each month.
In January, JOLT relocated to larger, more centrally-located building along Sheridan Road between McClure and Nebraska.
The move is timely.
From June 2020 to June 2021 the United States saw over 100,000 drug overdose deaths, according to data from the CDC. In 2019, the CDC reported that 72.9% of opiate-related drug overdoses involved synthetic opioids.
One of those synthetic opioids is fentanyl, a highly potent lab-made drug used in hospital settings for the treatment of extreme pain. The DEA is finding record numbers of fentanyl-laced street drugs and recently included Peoria in a list of 34 cities tapped for a federal law enforcement response.
WCBU's Hannah Alani toured the JOLT Foundation's new Sheridan Road HQ last week, and interviewed JOLT Foundation Director Chris Schaffner about the nonprofit's expansion.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Chris Schaffner: It's actually been more chaotic than I envisioned. We've had to restructure a lot of things, like our patient flow and our policies, procedures, and how we operate here. And we've moved towards a more professionalization of harm reduction. So this feels like more like a medical clinic, versus just kind of a small, organic nonprofit. It's had challenges that were unforeseen — good challenges, it's all good stress. It's part of the growing pains of an organization that is growing to meet the needs in our community.
Hannah Alani: In the first month, have you seen more walk-ins? Has this physical location provided more access to people you're trying to serve?
Chris Schaffner: Yes. ... The snow and the weather we've had, of course, is limiting foot traffic. But we've already see more foot traffic out here, [even] in the inclement weather. And we've had people coming in ... they had no idea what we do, they're just curious. It's easier for most people to access because it's centrally located. It's right off of the major bus route. We're on a major artery in Peoria, Sheridan Road. We're directly across from the health department. So there's a lot of benefit for us being here and ease of access, and we have seen an increase in patients coming into our space.
Hannah Alani: Tell us a bit about some of those benefits of being right across the street from the health department.
Chris Schaffner: Yeah, so we do a lot of work together already. We're both public health workers, right? So for us, we're testing highly marginalized populations. And we were targeting those populations with services to increase their overall health and wellness, which includes things like addressing substance use and substance use-related harms, overdoses, and overdose fatalities. Narcan distribution. But then also, STIs, the impact of COVID on marginalized populations. And the health department has complementary resources, and we have complementary resources for their programs.
So for instance, if somebody came in and said, "Hey, I'm really struggling with opioid use disorder, and I think I'd benefit from Suboxone." It's really easy for me to pick up the phone and call over and talk to the prescriber and say, "Hey, you know, can we set up an appointment to get this person in?" And oftentimes, they're, they're like, "Yeah, here's an appointment, let's get him in." And we can just walk them over. That's really nice. Or [if] somebody tests positive for, let's say, an STI, we're able to just say, "Hey, let's go across the street and talk about your treatment options." And if somebody's looking for medical care. We don't provide a full menu of medical care services. But we can get them connected to services over there, as well. It's great to have those allies directly across the street from us.
Hannah Alani: Obviously, the numbers are through the roof, with substance use disorder and fentanyl. Can you talk about right now, in this moment, why it is so important for you to be here in the heart of Peoria, doing what you're doing?
Chris Schaffner: Yeah. You know, COVID has disrupted services for a lot of folks. And it's really impacted people who are marginalized, people who have less access to resources, who have transportation barriers, unstable housing, food insecurity, you know, and then then you add on those other conditions like mental health issues, or substance use or trauma or whatever. And so I think it's essential that somebody is standing in the gap for those folks. And that's, I think that's our sweet spot, is being able to stand in there, and to advocate for those folks and to try to bring some equality and equity to accessing health care and other resources.
What we found with COVID, when we first went on lockdown a couple years ago, though, was there are huge gaps in services for some of the most highly marginalized folks. ... When services are disrupted, people who are struggling with substance use disorders can no longer access treatment providers. They couldn't access their physicians in ways that they're accustomed to, if they had a primary care to begin with. The drug supply became very, very, very toxic. Because those traditional drug routes were being interrupted to some degree, as well. And so it really put people at risk. Plus, the isolation, right? So think about all the COVID mitigations, which were important for reducing the spread of COVID or preventing other people from getting it. ... It also wreaked havoc on our population who do not do well when they're isolated. You're looking at not just depression, but you're looking at higher risk for overdoses, separation from meaningful communities, communication and contact with people, all that was stripped away for a while, particularly in those very early and uncertain months of the pandemic.
But then I also think we are strategically positioned, because we do harm reduction. ... 'Mitigation' is just a fancy public health word for harm reduction, right? We wore masks. We got vaccines. We socially distanced. We washed our hands. That's just harm reduction. And I think that's elevated the conversation, and in many people's minds, has allowed them to wrap their heads around harm reduction in other areas as well, that they might not have understood or been opposed to previously.
Hannah Alani. Yeah. Do you think that words like 'harm reduction,' 'needle exchanges,' 'Suboxone,' 'Methadone' ... those are less stigmatized now, than they were two years ago?
Chris Schaffner: People have genuine concerns. I don't fault anybody for those, right? If I heard that a needle exchange was gonna open up in my neighborhood, I would have concerns, too, if I didn't understand what that meant. And so I don't fault anybody for having concerns. I would just love to have conversations with those folks. And explain to them what we do, and why we do it. Because I think the evidence is convincing. And it's rare that I can have a conversation with someone who maybe was misunderstood or opposed to it. ... When I explained the pragmatic benefits of doing it, and how it's actually more effective than traditional ways of addressing some of these social ills, they get behind it, they support it.
I do think that there is a growing embrace ... and the conversation is evolving around harm reduction. Our state passed a bill a couple years ago, really increasing support for harm reduction services, including funding. And most recently, the federal government has allocated, for the first time in their federal budget, money to support harm reduction programs. And so I do think the culture is changing, conversations are changing.
Hannah Alani: The DEA recently came out with a report, looking at cities around the country that are really struggling with overdoses, particularly in the fentanyl market. Peoria was named as one of those. How did that news make you feel? When you read that news and read that report, what's your response to that?
Chris Schaffner: Honestly, I'm highly skeptical. I think regardless of how the the wording is written about the strategies, that it's really just the same old war on drugs tactics that focus only on supply side, and have proven to be futile. We've spent trillions of dollars on this over decades, and we're in the worst crisis we've ever been in. In the world of substance use, we often hear this quote that says, 'The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.' And this just feels like more of the same. And whether it's intentional or coincidental, these types of heavy handed criminal justice strategies disproportionately affect communities of color and communities that are impoverished. And that's been documented and proven over and over and over again. And I have no doubt that it will continue in that same vein.
Some of the initiatives here locally, recently, that have really attempted to address the gun violence ... I think is appropriate. But the hardest hit communities right now that are being heavily policed and patrolled, are communities of color. And so we're just perpetuating a lot of the same old stuff we've always done. And none of it has netted anything. This will be great PR. It's a way to continue to flow funding into federal government programs like the DEA. But it's also taking money away from programs like ours that are making a real difference.
Hannah Alani: I was listening to WBUR Boston's recent report on fentanyl this week, and they had a reporter kind of make the point that, you know, we're looking at 'supply' and 'demand' here. And for so long, the approach has been, 'Attack the supply with criminal justice.' But because fentanyl is so potent, it's lab-grown and it's easier to transport ... you need less of it to get across the border to, you know, have an impact here. ... There's been more conversations in DC, like, 'If we can't really affect the supply, how do we make a difference in the demand?' And, 'How can we get more Americans to a point where they don't reach for drugs anymore?' And I thought that was really interesting, because I've never heard that on national radio before. And to me that just spoke so much to what you do here.
Can you give an example of a client you've had who had been exposed to fentanyl, and was experiencing substance use disorder, and through use of MAT [Medication Assisted Treatment], is is no longer addicted?
Chris Schaffner: Yeah, I can give countless stories about that. I have volunteers and staff and clients I see every day that benefit from that. But I think of one young lady in particular. She was young, in an abusive relationship, was being turned out in sex work, and was addicted to drugs, dependent on methamphetamine and heroin. Came in contact with our services, just to get some safe supplies. We built a relationship with this individual. And this individual eventually reached out to us to start making some other positive changes. Had a setback, ended up being arrested and was caught up in drug court — which I still have mixed feelings about, but in this case, it worked really well. Provided support and treatment. The individual was housed. They became abstinent because of their own choice, Got on Suboxone, and was able to engage in treatment services. Was able to get a job. Was able, because of the job, they bought their own car. They were they were able to get their own apartment. And they had a child. They're a single mom now, enrolled in school ... working ... stable. And all of that is related to having access to Medication Assisted Treatment like Suboxone.
That does not take away from all the effort she put in to making those changes. But without that medication, going through the severe withdrawals, and the intense cravings driven by really potent synthetic fentanyl ... it would be nearly impossible for her to achieve a lot of that without that type of support. There are other factors, of course, peers and social supports that came around her that supported her. But to this day, this individual still doing really well. And that's what's possible when people have access to these resources.
Hannah Alani: You have a community resource fair coming up in March. It was originally scheduled for February, but then had to get postponed because of the snowstorm. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what to expect and why people should come?
Chris Schaffner: We put together these community fairs because a lot of our folks just have a hard time getting to places. And so we can pick them up, we can transport them here. It's centrally located. We want to have a variety of services available. So things like, how to sign up for medical insurance. Or, 'I don't have my ID, how do I go about doing that?' So having the right people in place, so it's a one stop shop for folks. Part, the problem we have is there's so many needs and the organizations aren't connected to one another. So we have to send people out on a scavenger hunt to find the resources they need. ... And so we want to try to bring all that to us. And so that's what we're doing with these wellness fairs. People signing up for insurance, IDs, medical care, getting linked for substance use services, and other social services that people might need. And just bringing them all together.
Hannah Alani: Is there anything that I didn't ask you about that you'd like to share with our listeners? A message you'd like to blast out to Peoria?
Chris Schaffner: I just want to communicate that our goal is not to undermine anything. It's to just increase the health and wellness of the most marginalized people. Because healthy communities are defined by how healthy the least of them are, right? And when I say 'the least,' I don't value them as the least, but those that have been marginalized and vulnerable. That's a real indication of the health of a community. How are those folks doing? If we can raise the health and wellness of everybody, everybody wins.
JOLT Foundation is located at 2203 N. Sheridan Rd. Harm reduction services include free and sterile syringe access, syringe disposal, safe drug-using supplies, safe-sex supplies, hygiene products, treatment referrals and counseling.
JOLT offers free, rapid testing for HIV and Hepatitis C. Urine tests for sexually transmitted infections including Chlamydia and Gonorrhea are sent to a state lab for results.
Also, JOLT can help provide patients with the following:
- Training and distribution of Naloxone, a nasal spray that can save lives in the event of an opiate overdose
- A prescription for suboxone, a medication used to aid an individual experiencing withdrawal from opioid use disorder, as well as a maintenance medication to support long-term opioid use recovery
- A prescription for PrEP/PeP, an effective HIV prevention medication