Can something as simple as a backpack save lives? Over the past few years, the Connection 2 Care project and its partners have developed a backpack with supplies designed for people who are struggling with addiction. It can be a deciding factor between life and death.

Parts of Roanoke and its surrounding communities in Southwest Virginia have been addressing the needs of people with substance use disorder in recent years. Connection 2 Care is a collaborative project between the Institute for Policy and Governance (IPG) in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and the Roanoke Valley Collective Response to the Opioid Crisis. The goals are simple yet vital: Help people who are at risk for overdose through direct engagement. Follow up with referrals to services that can help them further. These goals are being met through collaboration, ingenuity, and compassion.

This fall, students, staff, and faculty from IPG, and volunteers from the Virginia Tech Recovery Community and the Drop-In Center North (a program of the Council of Community Services) finished packing the last 400 of 967 total backpacks that are being distributed to community members in need.

The backpacks include items that Connection 2 Care has identified, through research and direct feedback, as essential to people at risk of overdose and the negative health consequences of active addiction and who may be experiencing housing insecurity. These resources include hygiene items, water bottles, power banks, sunscreen, and information regarding local treatment centers and resources such as needle exchanges.

Connection 2 Care Backpack Supplies
Supplies included in the backpacks include hygiene items, a water bottle, sunscreen, and information on local treatment centers and community resources. Photo by Chiravi Patel.

“This experience continues to teach me how to identify community problems and gaps in resources, all while envisioning solutions and further developing my leadership skills," said Lacy Watson, a student who participated in the inventory, packing, and distribution of the backpacks. "The program took place without any major glitches, which is a testament to the leadership and collaborative spirit inherent to IPG.”

Associate Director of IPG Mary Beth Dunkenberger noted that “students working on the project have come from the disciplines of public health, biostatistics, sociology, urban affairs and planning, and international affairs. Connection 2 Care has given these students applied experiences with one of the most complex problems facing our society and local communities, that of the chronic disease of addiction.”

The Connection 2 Care packing process.
Students, faculty, and Connection 2 Care partners formed an assembly line to fill the last 400 of 967 backpacks. Photo by Chiravi Patel.

In order to get started on helping people at the community level, the project identified individuals who are most at risk for death by overdose. This involved talking with individuals experiencing addiction to see if they fit a set of three criteria: they are engaged in active drug use, they are in recovery but at risk of relapse upon re-entering their community after incarceration, or they have recently left a residential treatment program.

Once people who are most at risk are identified, Connection 2 Care mobilizes their community collaborators to directly engage them and provide assistance utilizing resources they have at their disposal. One engagement effort is to provide individuals with a fully stocked backpack that was designed by School of Architecture + Design industrial design assistant professor Elham Morshedzadeh. The backpack prototype is designed not only to hold personal effects and essentials but also to convert into a sleeping bag/pillow. This provides an additional layer of security by having one’s personal belongings nearby while they sleep.

One of the most concrete results of the backpack distribution is that people are continuously using the backpacks and bringing them back to treatment and help centers to be refilled and to access the services supported by the Connection 2 Care project and the project's community partners. This provides an opportunity to check in on people who have previously received a backpack and find out what has been the most useful for their daily lives.

Connection 2 Care provides one way for the Virginia Tech community to give back to the local Roanoke Valley community; and people struggling with addiction are getting the attention, help, information, and access to care facilities that they need.  

“After two and a half years, we are seeing results," said Lisa Via, who works with the Drop-In Center North and engages directly with at-risk individuals. "The project is gaining visibility and we are gaining the trust of the community. We are even directly responsible for saving the lives of people who have overdosed through the administration of Narcan.”

Close-up of the Connection 2 Care packing process.
IPG students and faculty, along with Connection 2 Care partners met in the IPG parking lot on Sept. 30 to stock backpacks with potentially life-saving supplies. Photo by Chiravi Patel.

Via reports that people are grateful to be seen as more than just “drug addicts” and it means a lot to them to know that people have put so much thought and effort into trying to help. “It’s nice to see the smiles and hear the appreciation in their voices when we distribute a backpack to someone who carries their life in several bags.”

Addressing widespread issues like addiction can seem like an insurmountable challenge, but SPIA, the IPG, and their partners have shown that there are plenty of ways for local problem-solvers to help directly.

“The factors contributing to the challenge of addressing addiction are multifaceted, therefore the solutions must be as well," Dunkenberger said. "This project has enabled the involved students to see tangible results in building relationships among community organizations with the goal of working together to serve their community.”

The Connection 2 Care project was funded under a Combating Overdose through Community-level Intervention (COCLI) grant administered by the Center for Drug Policy and Prevention at the University of Baltimore.

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