Sparking Community Collaboration on Substance Misuse

three women in conversation

Preparing for an unprecedented opportunity


two men engaged in conversationWhen Healthy Places NC launched in Southeast North Carolina in 2019 (Bladen, Columbus and Robeson Counties), addressing the opioid epidemic quickly rose to the top of community-identified priorities. Much like rural communities across the country, the Southeast region of the state is plagued by the opioid epidemic but runs very short on substance misuse treatment options.

In Robeson County, community organizers used a three-year, $950,000 Healthy Places NC grant to form the Southeastern Prevention and Addiction Recovery Resource Center, or SPARC. Housed at UNC Pembroke, SPARC serves as a hub to coordinate local substance misuse efforts by supporting and expanding the existing RCORP Consortium. The consortium includes nearly 40 organizations ranging from small nonprofits to the local health system.

Dr. Jackie Davis, SPARC project director, attributes the initiative’s success to a spirit of collaboration. “Our original goal for year one was to expand membership (15 active) by 23 new members. Over a two-year period, we currently have more than 60 organizations” she said. “They saw a greater need to create partnerships, rather than working in silos, to tackle challenges related to addiction and identify opportunities for community education.”

In neighboring Bladen and Columbus counties, community members recognized the lack of access to resources and health care providers. They worked with Healthy Places to engage a team at Addiction Consulting and Training Associates (ACT). Together they formed community-based coalitions to identify gaps hindering effective recovery and develop solutions. A needs assessment found that illicit use of prescriptions, alcohol, opioids and other abused substances were among Bladen County’s most pressing issues and this information was used to forge a strategic plan.

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Substance misuse collaboratives in all three counties leveraged their efforts to increase funding and create new projects, but their hard work received a turbo charge of opportunity. In July 2021, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced a settlement agreement, holding pharmaceutical distributors and manufacturers accountable for their role in catalyzing the opioid epidemic.

North Carolina will receive a $1.5 billion share of national opioid settlements that will support treatment, recovery, harm reduction, and other lifesaving services in communities throughout the state.

“Things look very different with the opioid settlement fund,” said Syd Wiford of ACT. “Bladen and Columbus can increase services for the next 18 years—something no county with individuals facing substance use disorder has ever experienced.”

Decisions regarding distribution of the settlement funds will be made at the state and county levels. With established coalitions and completed community needs assessments, Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties are well-positioned to take advantage of settlement funding coming to each community. For example, Bladen and Columbus counties will use a portion of the funds to secure beds for residents at a drug-treatment center in Wilmington. Robeson County has recommended using a portion of the money to increase funding for drug courts aimed at helping drug users accused of crimes.

Woman holding a microphone while standing “We will never get an opportunity like this again, so we want to utilize these dollars for things that can’t be funded elsewhere,” said Davis. “Without SPARC, I think there is a good chance we would have seen a lot of competing proposals and duplication of efforts. Now as a community we are in lockstep about what we need and how we can get it.”