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Sage's Army services are changing to better help people with substance abuse issues

When Carmen Capozzi established Sage’s Army in 2012, his phone rang constantly every day.

When Carmen Capozzi started Sage's Army in 2012, he got a lot of phone calls every day. Sage’s Army in 2012, his phone rang off the hook every day.

'From the day we started, it was my (phone) number,' Capozzi said. 'We weren't funded then — it was just volunteers.'

After his son Sage died from a heroin overdose, Capozzi felt the need to create the Hempfield-based recovery organization.

As executive director, Capozzi expanded the phone program into a 24-hour helpline. It now has its headquarters at 6044 Route 30.

First, it was run by volunteers, and later by employees of Sage's Army. The helpline got about 7,000 calls last year and helped 217 people get into treatment.

The phone line is just one of the many recovery-related services provided by Sage's Army, whose staff was highlighted at an event on Wednesday.

Community members and county officials came to listen to organizers and experts and share their stories about the work Sage's Army does and plans to do in the future.

'Where I'm hoping the future is more connections to recovery support services,' Capozzi said. 'I hope the future brings more support and more recovery community organizations. We need them everywhere.'

Rob Hamilton, director of Westmoreland County Human Services, and Tim Phillips, director of the county's Department of Community Relations and Prevention, stressed the help that Sage's Army and other recovery community organizations, or RCOs, can offer. Both mentioned their own past experiences with substance use and how recovery assisted them.

'It's crucial that we continue to have RCOs like this situated around Westmoreland County,' Hamilton said. 'While I might not be a recipient of Sage's Army that provided me my care, it was organizations like and related to Sage's Army that helped provide my care, and have driven me to be who I am today.'

'Back in those days, recovery wasn't really visible, it wasn't talked about. I didn't know anything about recovery then,' Phillips said. 'When I look here and see the things that we've done, it's been tremendous.

'We've come leaps and bounds since those old days.'

Changes in services

As drug and substance use issues in the area have changed over time, so has Sage's Army, director of operations Janice Olson said.

Heroin has been replaced by other drugs like fentanyl and xylazine, and alcohol use continues to be a problem for many.

Sage's Army gets and gives out testing strips for xylazine, Olson said.

'Fentanyl was not on the streets (12 years ago),' Olson said. 'Since I have been working in the drug and alcohol field for eight years, heroin is moving out and fentanyl is moving in, xylazine is moving in. Alcohol is definitely becoming big. That's the silent killer people don't want to talk about.'

Some people who started with opiate use move into alcohol use, Olson said. She hopes for more funding sources in the area to deal with alcoholism recovery.

'People don't recognize the pathways that alcohol and opiates hit. It hits the same brain receptors,' Olson said. 'It's the same euphoric feeling that's going on in the brain.'

Sage’s Army has been working to keep up with the changing situation. The group is collaborating with local EMS providers and hospitals to address gaps in post-treatment care.

“Right now, people are being overlooked in our hospitals; definitely, we’re hearing that a lot,” Olson said.

The organization is striving to link patients who enter the hospital for substance use with recovery services after they are discharged, even if they are cleared as having no physical injuries.

The Sage’s Army location on Route 30 also hosts events and meetings for alcohol, drug and gambling recovery groups.

The path forward

Sage’s Army is anticipating further expansion of programs, Olson said.

The group launched a “street team” initiative in March that goes out monthly to assist people living in local homeless encampments and provide them with supplies. The team also reaches out to encourage local businesses to carry Narcan.

“Once a month, we are trying to reach different areas of Westmoreland County,” Olson said. “We hope that, as the winter weather improves a little, we can do it more frequently than just once a month.”

The organization is collaborating with the Stage AE music venue in Pittsburgh for several upcoming concerts to oversee a “Sober Section” in the audience, where non-alcoholic mocktails will be served and resources and staff from Sage’s Army will be available for anyone who needs help.

“It was great timing when we contacted them. They mentioned that some bands had asked for a sober section,” Capozzi said.

The team has also been operating a transportation service with a van and coordinator who can transport people to and from the center, meetings, doctors’ appointments, food banks, clinics and more, Olson said.

The van has been providing approximately 100 free rides every month.

“We are addressing that need,” she said. “We understand it’s a hurdle if you can't get to your next appointment to receive your necessary medication for recovery. We are addressing that and getting them there.”

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