AmeriCorps responds to Opioid Crisis, Nationally and Locally

Article Author: Gordon Harless, 2019-2020 CAC AmeriCorps VISTA Leader
Ashley Gustafson, CAC AmeriCorps 2019-2020 VISTA Member
Cameron Henshaw, 2019-2020 CAC AmeriCorps VISTA Member

All across the country, communities are suffering from the effects of the opioid and substance abuse epidemic. Over 72,000 people died from drug overdose in 2017 alone, and even now in 2020, 130 people die every day from drug overdose. Locally, Tennessee alone had 1,818 overdose deaths in 2018. Tennessee has a high number of non-fatal overdoses as well, and access to powerful drugs is not slowing. There were over 6 million prescriptions for painkillers filled in Tennessee in 2018. That means for every 1000 Tennesseans, 901 of them would have been able to have access to painkillers.

As this crisis has become a national one, CNCS (Corporation for National and Community Service) has begun to refocus funding and efforts to respond. This includes $27 million in grants for AmeriCorps projects focused on substance abuse prevention and treatment. Locally, this resulted in CAC AmeriCorps VISTA program adding several new partners in out 2019-2020 Corps year focused on Opioid response, and we will be including even more in our next Corps year.

To get a sense of how AmeriCorps members are responding to this crisis, and what service in this area has meant to our members, we received feedback from some of our VISTA Members serving at opioid focused sites.

20200306_112451Ashley Gustafson serves as the Volunteer Coordinator at Choice Health Networks/Positively Living. Ashley supports Positively Living’s syringe exchange program through volunteer recruitment and training. Ashley provided the following feedback on how service through AmeriCorps has informed and changed her understanding of the substance abuse crisis:


“Personally, I knew the opioid epidemic was having a significant impact on people’s lives. One of the biggest things I did not realize was all the stigmas and stereotypes around people who use drugs. I also didn’t realize all the barriers many face. These barriers include lack of access to medical care, food insecurity, job insecurity, and being treated poorly by some medical professionals if deciding to seek medical care.

When it comes to food insecurity, this is a huge problem. While there are several food banks and food pantries, these often require the recipient to provide an address or an ID or SSN. Several people don’t necessarily have these things which ultimately denies them access to food. These people often go hungry which impacts daily functioning.

Lack of health insurance, lack of access to medical care, and being treated poorly by medical professionals is another barrier many struggle with. People may not have health insurance due to job insecurity or may not have access to health care due to location in which they reside and/or medical facilities will not accept them. Due to stereotypes and stigmas surrounding drug use, some medical professionals may become part of that issue. Medical professionals may play into stereotypes and stigmas, immediately judging people who use drugs and providing poorer quality of healthcare to these people just because they use drugs. This judgment significantly impacts the health of a person, they are being judged solely on their use of drugs rather than who they are as a person and what health issues they have.

When I first began my term, when learning about the harm reduction program, one of the biggest things I witnessed, is the community of people who use drugs. Many do not have much but they will jump at the chance to help one another out, whether its sharing a sandwich even though they haven’t eaten in days or coming to Syringe Service Programs (SSP’s) for their friends and family to make sure they have new syringes if the friends or family weren’t able to come themselves.

Harm reduction has the basis of reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use. People who are apart of Harm Reduction Programs are 6 times more likely to seek recovery and are 3 times more likely to reduce their overall drug use. Another component of Harm Reduction is participant involvement, harm reduction has the belief that the participants know what’s best and should be allowed to help make decisions of how these programs are ran to provide better services. As the volunteer coordinator, participants are encouraged to volunteer. These opportunities include assembling naloxone kits and volunteering at Syringe Services Programs (SSP’s). When SSP participants volunteer at SSP’s, these individuals are better able to relate to other participants and make participants feel more comfortable being there. This is a positive thing because it then encourages people to continue to use SSP services which ultimately helps to reduce transmission of blood borne pathogens, decreases injury due to multiple use of a single syringe, provides people with access to healthcare by being able to be tested for HIV and Hep C for free and onsite, lets people know their health status, and improves confidence of people.

As a future nurse I am taking what I am learning to heart. I want to strive to provide equal quality and access to healthcare to all, regardless if they are a person who uses drugs, has mental illnesses or whatever circumstance people are in. I can only hope that in the future the stigmas, the stereotypes and the barriers will all be broken down to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to resources.

Cameron Henshaw serves as the Resource Coordinator for Next Step Initiative, where he has built capacity through fundraising and formalizing data collection practices to help Next Step better understand and measure its impact. Cameron had the following to say in regards to how Next Step has expanded his understanding of opioid abuse:

“Prior to coming to Next Step Initiative, my knowledge of the opioid epidemic was somewhat spotty; I knew it was a complicated issue, and difficult in many ways to tackle. My work at Next Step has confirmed what I already knew, but has also shown me the progress that can be made through relationships, advocacy, and outreach. More than anything, Next Step has shown me the impact of compassion and relationships; connecting with people, both our clients and others in the community, is key to fostering understanding, empathy, and positive steps forward.” 

Through passion, dedication, and compassion for others, AmeriCorps members are responding to the needs of communities around Knoxville, and around the country, to help save lives and end the terrible costs of the opioid crisis.


This blog post is a collection of personal reflections and expressions. All opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent the official opinion or views of the Knoxville – Knox County Community Action Committee, CAC AmeriCorps or any other party referenced.

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