UMN collaborates with rural communities to combat opioid crisis

The project aims to build upon work already underway in rural counties and Native American communities.

Helen Sabrowsky

A University of Minnesota program is connecting rural and Native American communities in Minnesota with resources to combat the opioid crisis.

Earlier this month, the project’s team hosted a webinar to review progress and continue coordinating the initiative. The project is A Community Capacity Building Approach to Addressing the Opioid Crisis in Rural Counties Across Minnesota. It is a collaboration between the University Extension and the College of Pharmacy in Duluth.

“We’re really in the beginning stages, but things are moving fast because there’s such a great need for the resources, and the communities are really hurting,” said Jennifer Garbow, a University extension educator who leads the project’s American Indian Resource and Resiliency team.

The project is funded by two grants the University received in September, which will provide two years of support. Since the University received the grant, multiple people have been hired and planning is underway to find gaps in services and areas that need University support.

One of the grants focuses on the work being done by the University in collaboration with Native American communities Bois Forte and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. 

The project places emphasis on building “recovery capital,” which is internal and external support a person with a substance-use disorder can use to support their recovery, Garbow said.

The team is focusing on building recovery capital that already exists in Native American communities through workshops, community events and public forums. They will also develop an online resource for service providers and individuals affected by substance abuse, she said. 

Its heavy emphasis on community partnerships and collaboration is a unique aspect of the project, she said. 

“It is different in that we’re not taking the approach that we have the solution, we’re really taking the approach that we need to work in partnership with these communities to build upon [existing work],” Garbow said. 

A second federal grant supports the work being done in Aitkin, Itasca, Pine and northern St. Louis counties, Garbow said. 

Jana Blomberg, a public health educator for Northern St. Louis County, said the additional University support is important in reaching everyone affected by substance abuse in the area.

“Northern Saint Louis County … is a rural area, there’s a lot of small towns, and so to get to everywhere to do education is really hard,” said Blomberg. “Having more hands and more people to help with that, and to have funding to help with that, is really huge.”

Although the communities have similarities, they face different challenges, and services will differ in each region, said Garbow. 

“They do a really great job at making sure all the community partners are involved and have a voice and are able to represent our areas and be able speak to our areas and the unique challenges and differences to our specific regions,” Blomberg said. 

Becky Foss, director of Pine County Health and Human Services, said many individuals in Pine county are affected by methamphetamine and alcohol abuse in addition to opioid use.

While the project targets opioid use, the recovery capital framework also supports those with other substance use disorders, Foss said. 

“When you build that capital for a group of people, you’re actually building and enhancing that for everybody,” Foss said. 

By working with housing partners to help those struggling with opioid addiction find stable housing, she said housing is more accessible to those struggling with alcohol addiction.

The projects, which will receive grant funding for two years, will start to develop Narcan and Naloxone training, as well as education on healing and historical trauma, Garbow said. Narcan and Naloxone are medications that help block the effects of opioids.

“When we can build these partnerships, it speaks volumes to the work that we’re doing as a community. But it also means that we’re really impacting future generations in a positive way, and it’s a great legacy to leave,” Foss said.