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Community organizers, high-profile musicians and recovering addicts are singing back to the opioid crisis


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Friends for Recovery, a nonprofit focused on mental health and substance use, is trying to shine a ray of hope on the opioid crisis. On Sept. 29, it will hold a release party for "Hope Fiendz," a 12-song album that sources stories directly from recovering addicts. The album's production was built around weekend jam sessions, and many relapsed individuals got back on the recovery path while listening.

But continuing to organize such projects is a struggle for executive director Larry Almarode and similar nonprofits. He says grant opportunities for recovery centers are dwindling.

"There's so much talk about the epidemic in the news, and [government] puts a lot of lip service out there that they're doing these things," Almarode says. "But actually having a place to come, get out of the house, get support and make connections is really important."
Indeed, stunning stats about opioid usage in Virginia have been broadcast this summer. In a Sept. 5 update to his lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, attorney general Mark Herring revealed that the company had dispensed nearly 150 million opioid pills and patches in Virginia in nine years. Herring also noted that 5,000 Virginians died from opioid pill overdose in that stretch. That's close to the same number of Americans who died during the eight years-long Iraq War.

Supplied with just $15,000 this year, Almarode got creative with his Virginia Department of Behavioral Health grant. He surveyed people with experience of addiction and launched a nightclub series at Friends for Recovery, called Sober Nights. Dart boards, a pool table and dinners were purchased. But musicians were the secret ingredient to success. Brooke Saunders was bringing weekend performers through promotional company Rockitz, and he suggested making a lasting artifact for fundraising. He would go on to produce and record the album with Calvin Cecil in Ashland, at Cecil's Snow Moon Studio. The album will be released by local label Planetary Records.

"I wanted it to be half-female voices and half male, half slowish and half fastish," Saunders says. The songs are kept intentionally accessible, he says, under the idea that if a band member is missing, live shows can go on. This is almost a feat in itself, considering the caliber of musicians who contributed their talent. Folk artist Janet Martin has written a track featuring Sparklehorse's pedal steel guitarist Stephen McCarthy. Sparklehorse drummer Johnny Hott shows up elsewhere, too. Susan Greenbaum, picked by Style readers this year as one of the best local musicians, also appears on the album. As do a host of others.

Saunders hopes the grant funding woes can be worked out. "Somebody might be a musician suffering from this problem and say, 'Oh, damn, I want to get on board with Friends for Recovery, they're doing another CD,'" he says. "If we get funding we'll do another one. Or limp along under the radar, running on fumes, but happy as a clam. We're having a blast."

"You gotta have some kind of vehicle, product, thing," he continues. "That's where I came up with the idea of the thing being a story. Because that's the heart and soul of a nonprofit like this: the story, the people. You know, they're coming in there to make a better life — to look forward, not behind."

By strange coincidence, songwriter Pam McCarthy knew the young woman whose story she was assigned to, through her daughter. She also knew the young woman's boyfriend, who ended up taking his own life because of addiction. Many of her loved ones and family members have battled addiction, too. But she projects positive energy about the whole experience.

Meeting people and performing at Sober Nights "was very inviting, it enchanted me so much," she says. "Creativity is a lot of times the way to break [addiction]. If you can get past what broke you, then the sky is the limit. And you also feel that, wow, now that I'm not broken, I want to help somebody else." Appropriately, her song is titled "Not Broken Anymore."

Almarode himself knows the importance of overcoming the cycles of addiction.

"I came here in 2011, out of the in-patient unit, and getting involved in peer support saved my life," he says. "A lot of research into recovery now is focusing on community inclusion or integration. We wanted a place where people could connect and not feel so isolated and alone. One of the big focuses of this was restoring that humanity."

It may be more lip service, as Almarode puts it, for Gov. Ralph Northam to make the rounds at medical schools. Still, a younger generation might follow through on new recovery models. Northam, a physician, has urged students to learn more about their patients' medical histories and to search for lasting pain management solutions, rather than just prescribe more opioids.

"Don't ever take someone's hope away," he said recently to Liberty University students. "Up until you actually lose one of your patients, you can help them. That's what people come to see you for." S


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