Sent to live in foster care as a child, Antonia Sawyer was a high school dropout who eventually became homeless, living on the streets and abusing drugs. Fast forward twenty years, the now 40-year-old mother of three says the recognition that families in her community were suffering because of substance abuse disorder compelled her to take action against a national opioid overdose crisis.
“No one is immune from addiction. I was in foster care, I was a runaway, I have been homeless. I see myself in some of the younger individuals who are actively using drugs, and that very well could have been me.”
Recognizing a desperately growing need across her state for opioid overdose recognition and response but an apparent gap when it came to getting help into the hands of people trained to use it, the Kokomo, Indiana resident decided to think outside the box. Literally.
Founding #ShipHappens in 2019, Antonia boxes up what is oftentimes a life-saving dose of Naloxone and ships it free to anyone in the state of Indiana, including to distributors who can mobilize the drug and individuals like people who use drugs, their friends and family. #ShipHappens also provides free training in opioid overdose recognition and response utilizing Naloxone. Receiving the medication, called an “opioid antagonist” which is used to counter the effects of opioid overdose, from harm reduction organizations, Antonia says the Naloxone she is shipping is saving lives in communities across the state.
“I had a mother contact me, and told me she needed to get trained on Naloxone because her daughter’s life had recently been saved twice in one day by kits we’d sent her. Her daughter was coming home from a recovery center, and the mother wanted to have Naloxone in the house, just in case. I had a gal reach out to me saying her husband had overdosed, and that she had several kits in the house. It takes me 15 minutes to ship a box, but if it’s going to save someone’s child, my 15 minutes is nothing compared to the impact it’s going to have on someone’s life.”
By getting Naloxone in the hands of active drug users, their friends and family who have traditionally been dependent upon first responders and an individual’s ability to recognize an overdose, Kass Botts, executive director of the Indiana Recovery Alliance, says Antonia is empowering civilians to take action in crucial life or death situations.
“Whenever an overdose occurs, people are having to call 911, wait for first responders to get there, hope that first responders are able to adequately identify that an overdose is occurring and then chose to administer Naloxone. If someone is located more rurally, there could be a time delay in EMS getting to the person. Because irreversible brain damage or even death can happen within just five minutes of oxygen deprivation, today, people are able to act immediately and save a life then and there. (#ShipHappens) empowers everybody to be lifesavers in their own communities.”
Access to Naloxone is just one part of the daily battle Antonia wages in the fight against drug overdoses. The deadly stigma that exists, particularly in the Midwest, according to Antonia, against people who use drugs often acts as a barrier for active users and their families to get users the help they so desperately need. That’s why Antonia fights to expand access to the life-saving drug and provides virtual education for the people who need it most.
“There’s a stigma against people who show up at public trainings and learn how to administer Naloxone. Once I received my first gift of about 1,500 doses of Naloxone and shipped it to distributors I knew were registered across the state, it clicked. If I can spare someone the shame and judgment they face to get this medication, then maybe I could train people online, and get Naloxone to anybody who needs it.”
Antonia has shipped more than 4,000 doses of Naloxone through #ShipHappens, and is changing the landscape of harm reduction in Indiana by increasing capacity across the state and providing tools that allow others to act as Naloxone distributors and champion the fight in their own communities.
“What Antonia’s doing is making herself available to anybody who puts in a request for Naloxone, anywhere across the state of Indiana, and she’ll get them exactly what they need,” Kass says. “That’s huge. People that don’t have access in their literal physical community, who can’t get to their health department, still have access to the community of harm reduction.”
Antonia says her volunteerism isn’t a choice, but instead, something she feels compelled to do.
“I am inspired by the perseverance of the families I serve. I am tired, I am busy, I am a mother. I go to school, I work, but I could be so many other things, and those are sacrifices I am willing to make. The families I serve don’t have the capabilities to serve, because they’re trying to save their kids and find recovery options for their family members and trying to make sure they don’t overdose. It’s inside me to help them, I can’t stop.”
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