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Pandemic response taxes local nonprofit service agencies

Not everybody gets a second chance in life, especially those recovering from addiction.

It’s a lesson Jennifer Brodie learned the hard way and one the Gillette resident is determined to use to help others who go down a similar path.

“It’s been a long journey,” Brodie said about her odyssey, which has taken her through various iterations of addiction and abuse.

Now looking forward to a future where she may one day counsel others, she said now is finally “the first time I see some light at the other end of the tunnel. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Struggling in isolation

Like others before her, Brodie has found a path to recovery through the help of various nonprofit organizations like Personal Frontiers, a substance abuse treatment program.

It’s one of several program critical for people like Brodie who are fighting addiction, along with homelessness, juvenile troubles, physically violent relationships and other situations that can be life or death for an often-overlooked segment of local society.

Asking them to deal with their demons by themselves, “socially distanced” from others who may be their critical lifelines is a problem that’s been compounded by the struggle those nonprofit organizations are having to continue providing their services.

In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to increase the pressure on nonprofits like Personal Frontiers and the Council of Community Services as more people need their help.

It’s only been a few weeks, but these agencies already are having to make some tough decisions to get through the pandemic and the economic recession it has caused.

The Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation houses victims of domestic violence and/or sexual abuse while at the same time trying to protect them from the novel coronavirus, Executive Director Margie McWilliams said.

As the pandemic goes on and people are staying home as much as possible, the potential for domestic violence will only escalate, she said.

“When people are isolated it’s not always safe for victims,” McWilliams said. “Tensions rise and it sometimes gets to be a very tough situation for them.”

GARF is working with Wyoming and federal agencies to make sure its programs don’t get lost in the shuffle at a time when donations have basically dried up.

As for its clients, GARF is doing what it can for them.

“We’re making it through,” McWilliams said. “I don’t think anyone was prepared for this or expected something like this to happen.”

There are now five families living in the shelter, including some people with disabilities and others who may be vulnerable to COVID-19.

Each family has its own room and everyone uses a community kitchen, although staff reminds them to wash their hands often and keep a safe distance from one another.

The clients are so far healthy and have been “amazingly calm” and feel safe inside the shelters, McWilliams said. “We’re just doing the best we can with this being such a new thing.”

GARF should be OK financially through the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30. After that is difficult to predict.

“We will see what happens next year,” she said. “We will try and make accommodations as needed when they come up because I know they will. We’re going to be creative through this.”

Feeding an addiction

Brodie said she began drinking whiskey and smoking pot with her friends when she was 13 or 14 because it was “socially acceptable.”

That social use slowly escalated from weekend partying to leaving school to drink and smoke.

After losing her 4-month-old daughter to SIDS in her early 20s, Brodie said her addictions expanded to include using meth and selling drugs “to feed my addiction.”

“I was miserable,” she said about living life as an addict. “I was heartbroken. I completely lost all my self-worth and sense of who I am and basically I wanted to die. And I think I was slowly killing myself every day bit by bit.

“I’m a God-fearing woman and it was like being in hell.”

A 2013 stint in prison for possession of meth led to her first contact with Personal Frontiers, which also is the treatment provider for the Campbell County Adult Treatment Courts.

“I was scared,” she said about having to face getting sober. “All of that was new. I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like.”

For a while Brodie did well in the program. Then her husband, with whom she was raising three kids, was convicted in federal court for conspiracy to deliver meth with intention to deliver. It led to a relapse.

“It was a lot to be a single mom (and) I couldn’t get it together,” Brodie said.

Another arrest for drunken driving was a probation violation and meant a return to prison.

A balancing act

The last few weeks has felt like a year for YES House Executive Director Sherilyn England.

“We’re constantly adapting and changing and just trying to figure out situations we never had to figure out before,” she said about how the coronavirus has impacted her youth shelter.

It is hard for some youths there to grasp what is happening with the coronavirus, so staff encourages them to watch the news. Already troubled, the teens the YES House serves also have the same desires of wanting their freedom and to socialize like young people normally would do without a global health crisis.

“We do want them to understand how serious this is not just for themselves, but their loved ones,” England said, adding it’s more difficult now because the facility is closed to visitors and family members.

Parents have been understanding and patient about the situation, she said. Staff also have to account for changes in family situations like possible job losses, sickness “or any combination of factors causing anxiety.”

The YES House has been working Campbell County Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect youth and staff. Along with restricting visitors, the YES House is taking temperatures and closely monitoring for signs of illness.

Like other agencies, the YES House has been spending its resources on technology like tablets so families who cannot visit their loved ones can remain in contact with them.

“It’s challenging, but we’ll all get through this as a community, especially if we support each other and provide the best leadership that we can,” England said.

Anticipating a shortfall

The city of Gillette expects a decline in available money for nonprofit service organizations like the YES House and GARF because it expects a drop in sales tax revenues as non-essential businesses remain closed and places like restaurants and bars are seeing dramatically reduced sales.

The City Council recently directed staff to come up with a resolution to raise the level of contributions the city usually commits from Optional 1% Sales Tax revenues.

In a normal budget year, the cap is 5% of money the tax brings in that goes to nonprofits. To at least maintain its past levels of funding, the council is considering raising that to 6.5%. That would mean about a $220,000 boost based on the projected $14.7 million the city anticipates in Optional 1% money in the next fiscal year.

If that could mean a little more for nonprofits, it will definitely be needed, England said.

Turning point

Watching Brodie’s struggle and now renewed resolve to be a positive influence on others is someone who has seen it many times before.

Donna Morgan isn’t only Brodie’s mother, she’s the executive director at Personal Frontiers.

“She was in a really bad place,” Morgan said. “Relapse is a real thing. One little thing can trigger it. People don’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘I want to be a drug addict today.’ It’s a disease.”

Morgan and her husband took care of Brodie’s daughters while she was serving time. They communicated by phone and letters, but Brodie said she missed out on band concerts and watching them grow “from girls to teens.”

“It was terrible,” Brodie said. “I pretty much had abandoned them because (I got) myself into trouble. (My mom) had to change her life in order to raise my girls while I was away.”

That second stint in prison was Brodie’s turning point.

“I found God, who really saved my life,” she said.

Brodie completed some college coursework in prison through Eastern Wyoming College on subjects ranging from computer skills to creative writing. She also began setting goals for herself, including to become a peer counselor to help others struggling with addiction.

She was released less than a year ago and last May was hired at Don’s Supermarket, where she runs the deli and bakery departments.

“I hadn’t worked a normal job in quite a while,” she said. “It was a lot of anxiety being around so many people and not knowing what to expect.”

In September, she gave Personal Frontiers another shot. She’ll graduate the program Tuesday and eventually wants to return as a peer specialist instead of a client. She’s also going to continue with college courses to study mental health counseling and addiction.

“I’m not ashamed of the things I’ve been through,” Brodie said. “I’m sorry, especially with what I’ve done with my children. I hope to share my story to give hope and show (others) that it’s possible to have a life after addiction.

Morgan is proud of her daughter, and she also is concerned that others like Brodie may fall through the cracks of the many judicial and social service systems as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“It’s amazing to have my daughter back with all that we went through,” Morgan said. “If you see one person change their lives it’s so rewarding, so worth seeing and doing what we do even if it is a struggle.”

Technology trumps isolation

People quarantining at home and practicing social distancing may not be the best for some of Personal Frontiers’ clients, but social service agencies are using technology to help bridge those caps.

TeleMed, a live medical answering service, means the agency can continue group and one-on-one sessions with clients. At each virtual appointment, counselors check to make sure clients are doing OK.

“At first we thought it was weird. (But) since we’ve been doing it it’s actually been a good thing because the virus is here,” Brodie said. “Life can still go on. We can still get together. It’s a safe place and we can get the treatment that we need.”

One downside to the technology for Personal Frontiers has been the cost to set everything up for clients, especially as contributions are shrinking. For example, it needed to upgrade to Microsoft Windows 10, buy new laptops and pay for subscriptions so everyone could have remote access. The price tag was about $5,000.

“It has cost us a lot of money, which has been, unfortunately, a hit we weren’t anticipating,” Morgan said. “I’m sure it’s going to go up before it will get better. It’s an impact we weren’t anticipating.”

Despite the costs, “It’s so important to make sure they still have care,” Morgan said. “I think we’re going to weather the storm.”

Watching out for the vulnerable

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said the city will do what it can to help social service agencies like Personal Frontiers and the Council of Community Services.

“We know we have got to help them so I feel we will step up the most we can,” she said.

That’s welcome news for area nonprofits like Gillette Reproductive Health, which is trying to offer services despite having closed its doors, said Julie Price Carrol, the agency’s executive director.

She said she’s especially concerned for clients who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19. One client is a diabetic, another lives with a 90-year-old parent and another is a recent cancer survivor.

Her concern is balancing how to continue serving people while guarding against contracting or spreading the virus. So far, the agency has postponed nonessential appointments like wellness exams and is instead helping patients with more urgent problems like urinary track infections.

Like Personal Frontiers, Reproductive Health also relies on Optional 1% money and is now dipping into its reserves to make it through the end of the fiscal year.

And the longer the pandemic lasts — which so far is the foreseeable future — the tighter nonprofits will have to cinch their belts.

This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to the News Record here.

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