A Peer Coach Battles On The Front Lines Of The Opioid Epidemic : Shots - Health News Charlie Oen was addicted to heroin as a teenager. At 25, he's now clean and a peer counselor in Lima, Ohio, where he tries to help people who started using drugs before he was born.
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A Peer Recovery Coach Walks The Front Lines Of America's Opioid Epidemic

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A Peer Recovery Coach Walks The Front Lines Of America's Opioid Epidemic

A Peer Recovery Coach Walks The Front Lines Of America's Opioid Epidemic

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We're going to meet a coach now not for athletes but for people trying to stop using drugs. Charlie Oen is a peer-recovery coach in Lima, Ohio. Like many sports coaches, he draws on personal experiences to guide others down the same path. Bram Sable-Smith of member station KBIA spent today with him.

BRAM SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE: If you were writing Charlie Oen's life story, you might say it's been grim. But he won't.

CHARLIE OEN: If it was to be written, I guess it'd be an uplifting tale from a comedic point of view with tones of seriousness.

SABLE-SMITH: Here are the tones of seriousness. Charlie fell in with the wrong crowd when he was 16. He started drinking, popping pills, cooking meth, shooting heroin. He was homeless for a while when his parents kicked him out of the house. By 19, he was serving a three-year sentence in prison, where drugs were still available.

OEN: They're like, dude, do you want these morphines? Do you want this bit of heroin because everything was in there. And that's when I was, like, damn. I do, you know? And that's when I started to be like, I got to do something. I'm here for doing this. And I'm having these thoughts while I'm here. And I didn't want to let anybody else down, including, like, myself.

SABLE-SMITH: Now Charlie is three years out of prison and five years clean. For his clients, like 52-year-old Anna Hershey, his own experience kicking the habit makes a difference.

ANNA HERSHEY: It helps to have someone that's been there, you know, that's done some of the drugs that I've done.


HERSHEY: Because they know where you're coming from. And other people don't.

SABLE-SMITH: Anna has struggled with addiction for over 30 years. Charlie is her first peer supporter. Today he's driving her to a food pantry. It's less than a week away from Thanksgiving, so there's a chance there might be a turkey. But they're not optimistic.

HERSHEY: Look at that line. It's freaking out in the street. Oh, my God. It's way down here.

OEN: Yeah.

HERSHEY: I don't know. I don't know if I'm going to get any food out here.

OEN: I don't, either.

HERSHEY: I don't think so.

OEN: That woman was sleeping in her car. So, like, she's been there for a while.

SABLE-SMITH: Charlie's been working with Anna for about a year now. He helps take away some of the small impediments to living a drug-free life. He takes her shopping, helps her stay on top of her bills, apply for housing. And all the while, he's just there for her.

HERSHEY: Last night, I let him know that something was going on and stuff. But I'm proud of myself because I didn't leave my house and go do the drugs. And that's what I usually do when I get frustrated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have to shut it down for today, buddy.

OEN: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right. Y'all be good. Take it easy.

OEN: Thank you.

HERSHEY: Thank you.


SABLE-SMITH: They're turned away. But later in the day, Charlie takes Anna to a second food pantry, then to check on her job application to ring a bell for the Salvation Army. Up until now, Charlie's peer-coaching job has been paid for with grants. But starting July 1, Medicaid will cover this kind of work in Ohio, just like a counselor or social worker. He'll still see the same 20 clients he does now. Today he meets with two, Anna and Shelly Cavinder.

OEN: What's up, Shelly? Give me one second - just getting paperwork together.

SABLE-SMITH: At age 50, Shelly is twice Charlie's age. She struggled with opioid addiction since before he was born. She calls him her lifesaver. They talk most days. He takes her to doctor's appointments and to get her daily meds.

SHELLY CAVINDER: If I didn't have Charlie, I would probably be back on drugs and dead. I would be done. I mean, he even talks to me on his days off when I have an issue.

OEN: I appreciate that, Shelly.

CAVINDER: You're welcome.

SABLE-SMITH: The little pick-me-ups and atta-girls (ph) Charlie gives Shelly every day go a long way to keeping her from becoming a statistic. There were 52,000 drug-overdose deaths in 2015, 18 of them in this small Ohio county alone. When her mother died earlier this year, Shelly credits Charlie with helping her cope without drugs.

CAVINDER: He came to my mom's funeral, checked on me every day. And I still have it rough.

OEN: Some days are worse than others.

CAVINDER: And it's really hard on me right now with...

OEN: The season.

CAVINDER: ...The holidays.

SABLE-SMITH: It can be easy to forget that Charlie's also in recovery. He's got to take care of himself, too. He wants to be a social worker someday.

OEN: You know, at this point, I wanted to go to school. You know, I wanted to start evolving in this field that I'm in.

SABLE-SMITH: And that can only happen when he finishes paying his court fees. He's got $2,900 to go, down from 10,000. His peer-support job doesn't pay enough to cover that comfortably. So three nights a week, he picks up shifts at the Texas Roadhouse.

OEN: I'm a little salty about, you know, like, my time and money just going straight to court still, which - I mean, I know it's my fault. But cut a break, you know?

SABLE-SMITH: Sometimes, after a long day like this, he meets up with friends to unwind - but not today.

OEN: My friends wanted to play today. But I just want to shoot around by myself today. I don't feel like dealing with people. Sometimes, I don't, you know?

SABLE-SMITH: So he drives to the park near his house to kick a soccer ball alone as the sun sets.


SABLE-SMITH: For NPR News, I'm Bram Sable-Smith in Lima, Ohio.


SHAPIRO: This story is part of a partnership with NPR, Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News.

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