FINDLAY — Tony Grotrian wore all black — a two-button black leather blazer over a black collared shirt, black pants, black shoes.
His silver hair swept back from his broad forehead. He fiddled with a coffee cup as he spoke; the words came deliberately, directly.
His grandson Aaron Grotrian, 20, is buried in a cemetery outside of Findlay. A glossy black stone marks the grave.
It’s been years since that day — Aug. 28, 2009, — when he lost his grandson to a heroin overdose. He’s spent that time working to prevent drug deaths and warn people that drugs are in Hancock County and everywhere across the state.
“That type of addiction knows no boundaries, no age limit, no sex limit,” said Mr. Grotrian, 75, of Findlay. “It don’t care where you work, where you play. It’s here.”
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Prior to recent plans pitched by politicians to address the epidemic, Mr. Grotrian launched his one-man crusade. He calls it Operation Save Our Kids.
It’s the mission of a bereaved grandfather who wants a safer world for his 5-year-old great-granddaughter, left fatherless.
In grief, he found steely resolve.
Lately, he’s seen glimmers of hope in Hancock County, one of several counties in northwest Ohio with plans to combat substance abuse — a problem faced by rural regions as well as suburbs and big cities. From medication-assisted treatment to recovery coaching, area communities are experimenting with different methods to battle opioid addictions.
Some rural regions have been hard hit by the epidemic, said Orman Hall, director of the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team.
Southern Ohio, where “pill mills” flooded the area with prescription opioids, has been particularly affected, Mr. Hall said. Heroin’s surge is linked to prescription painkillers. Once addicted, people move to heroin, which is cheap, readily available, and dangerous because of the varying strengths.
More than a decade ago, focus on opiate addiction centered on urban areas and among minorities, Mr. Hall said. Shifts in recent years indicate it’s become “a white, rural problem.”
A lethal issue
The year Mr. Grotrian’s grandson died in 2009, 783 Ohioans died from opioid overdoses. The number increased to 1,154 fatalities in 2011, the most recent statewide statistics available.
Heroin-related overdoses accounted for an estimated 80 regional deaths last year, according to the Lucas County Coroner’s Office. Roughly 60 percent of those took place in Lucas County; the remainder occurred in about 20 surrounding counties.
Some counties have launched recent efforts to address the problem.
In December, Hancock County will open its first public and privately funded residential treatment center in Marion Township to serve up to eight men and four women at a time.
A former cabinetry showroom will be remodeled to house the center operated by Findlay’s Century Health Inc., a nonprofit that provides mental health and substance abuse services.
Century Health contracts with the Hancock County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services to provide services on a sliding fee scale based on a client’s income.
The $600,000 treatment center is supported by public funds as well as private church and business donations.
Century Health provides substance abuse outpatient services. When someone needs residential treatment they have to be referred to Toledo, Bowling Green, or Alvordton, Ohio, in Williams County, said Tina Pine, executive director of Century Health.
The planned 12-bed, always-staffed facility will provide live-in treatment for residents; clients will be encouraged to stay at least 90 days.
The convenience of having a center in the community it’s intended to serve will provide easier access for those with addictions, including to alcohol and opioids, said Ms. Pine.
“We’re not different from any other community across the nation right now with the problem with opioid addiction,” she said. “That is the newest, most current problem that a larger number of individuals are experiencing.”
In 2010, Century Health checked how many of its clients had an opioid addiction. At the time of that report, nine individuals were in treatment. Late last year, a similar report found about 140 individuals receiving treatment for opioid addiction, which includes heroin and prescription opioids.
At any given time, the agency treats about 400 people for a substance-abuse problem.
In Hardin County, where the 31,627 population is less than half of its northern neighbor Hancock County, officials are taking a different approach to substance abuse.
A pilot project funded by the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Allen, Auglaize, and Hardin counties pairs clients seeking help with “recovery coaches” — supporters who themselves have been in substance-abuse recovery for at least a year and who assist the client in every facet of their treatment.
The effort began in October, and 48 people currently participate. The recovery coach’s assistance could range from helping someone obtain a driver’s license to grocery shopping. Coaching can be combined other counseling and medications to treat opioid addiction.
“This is the first time that we’ve had any sense of hope that we are actually going to see people through this recovery process and back into society,” said the board’s executive director, Michael Schoenhofer.
He said the results so far have been more promising and less expensive than sending clients away for residential therapy. The board previously referred opioid addicts to Columbus for residential treatment, but Mr. Schoenhofer said they soon relapsed upon returning home.
“It’s absolutely critical that you are treated in the community. You have to learn how to live in the community,” he said.
The effort complements another initiative in Hardin County.
Common Pleas Judge Scott Barrett established a separate docket for individuals charged with felonies who are dealing with addictions. The recovery court, started in November, presently has 28 individuals who receive court-supervised treatment.
Williams, Fulton, Henry, and Defiance counties are among places where medication-assisted treatment is available. Recovery Services of Northwest Ohio offers outpatient and residential treatment and medication-assisted therapy for opioid addictions. It provides substance-abuse and mental-illness services to about 1,600 clients a year.
For several years, it has made available the drug Suboxone, a dose of which is taken daily to help prevent experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Within the last six months, it’s also begun to offer Vivitrol, an injected drug that lasts 30 days, said Ken Bond, Recovery Services’ executive director. Only a few people are being prescribed it.
“The medication-assisted therapy is an option that works pretty well. You still have to have counseling and therapy involved to be successful,” he said.
Wood County officials plan to launch a heroin task force this week.
Representatives from the Wood County Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services Board, the health department, treatment providers, and the criminal justice system will form the group to study heroin’s impact and identify resources to combat it, said Tom Clemons, the board’s executive director.
He continues to see more heroin addicts in need of outpatient services and residential treatment and said abuse of the drug exists in all parts of the county and across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Abuse “crosses all cultures,” agreed Deb Chany, executive director of the Sylvania Community Action Team.
It’s why the nonprofit organization is holding a town hall session to bring awareness to the topic at 7 p.m. March 26 at the Sylvania Senior Center.
“We are not saying that we have any more issues than the next community, but we’re saying we need to talk about these issues,” she said.
Raising awareness is Mr. Grotrian’s chief goal after losing his grandson.
Family members told him the young man was using heroin, but Mr. Grotrian didn’t understand the dangers until it was too late.
“In my crazy mind it wasn’t any worse than smoking a joint,” he said.
Just months after his grandson’s death, he retired from his job at Walmart in Ottawa. He took what he learned in more than 50 years of retail and visual merchandising and devoted his time and efforts to calling attention to the drug problem.
He began to attend every drug-related case at the Hancock County Courthouse, wearing his signature all-black ensemble. Once in a while he gets to speak to offenders or their loved ones and share his experience. But mostly he’s there to listen, learn, and witness the results of drug abuse.
His passion for the cause led to opportunities to participate in various state and local efforts to combat substance abuse. Recently, he testified in Columbus on behalf of a bill that would provide protection for a person — who could face a minor drug possession charge — but called 911 to try to save someone dying from an overdose.
Mr. Grotrian supports the proposed legislation because he said other people were with his grandson when he overdosed.
State Rep. Robert Sprague (R., Findlay) held hearings around the state last year as part of his work as chairman of the House Prescription Drug Addiction and Healthcare Reform Study Committee. He supported Mr. Grotrian’s idea for a good Samaritan-type law, and the bill is part of about a dozen bills related to opioid addiction.
This work is now Mr. Grotrian’s lifelong mission.
“We’re waking up more and more people. There are still a lot of people out there who don’t want to admit it. It’s a small town, let’s sweep it under the rug, we don’t want that kind of news going out, “ Mr. Grotrian said.
He’ll continue to speak out until everyone hears him.