By CAITY COYNE
WEST LOGAN - Last Wednesday, Brittany Burgess weaved her through a garden, stopping between flatbeds of more than a dozen types of plants - strawberries, tomatoes, squash, potatoes and onions, to name a few.
The 25-year-old Logan native became addicted to opioids three years ago, but August will mark a year of sobriety for her. Today, she's enrolled in college classes at Southern Community and Technical College, she holds a steady job and she's one of more than 30 Southern West Virginians who are using farming, through a program called Fresh Start, to help them during their path to recovery.
"I got in a little bit of trouble last year, I got court ordered to be in the (Southwestern Regional Day Report Center), but now I'm here," Burgess said, gesturing to the rows of fresh fruits and vegetables sprouting around her. "If I wasn't here, I'd be dead. I'd be in jail, or I'd be dead. I truly believe that after what was the worst three years of my life."
Fresh Start is currently operating in four Southern West Virginia counties: Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Mingo. Participants, many of whom come from the Day Report Center, can be there voluntarily or use the program to fill ordered community service hours. The one thing they have in common is their struggle with addiction to opioids.
"This isn't, you know, a punishment. It's a new way we're trying to get them more involved during the recovery process," said Michelle Akers, director of the Southwestern Regional Day Report Center. "No one is forced to be here, and obviously, it's not for everyone, but the ones that do choose to come, to stick with it, they love it. Their eyes light up when they get to the garden each week."
Participants meet to harvest and tend the garden each Wednesday. Chad Akers, Michelle's husband, volunteers as a mentor with the program and leads it each week, with help from Day Report Center staffers. Chad Akers' favorite part of the program is the look on participants faces when they see something sprouting.
"It's like, pride, pure pride. This is something they put in the ground, watered, watched, and then it's in their hands," Chad Akers said. "Their eyes just widen, and you can't wait to see that reaction again."
The program started after Michelle Akers, through the Day Report Center, applied for and received a federal grant for communities affected by the opioid epidemic. Now those who participate - referred to as students - can earn college credits through a partnership with SCTC while rebuilding connections with their communities as they pursue recovery.
"We really try to emphasize that part of recovery - community connectedness," Michelle Akers said. "That's how you get people to see what else they can do, when they're accepted back."
The garden in Logan, which sits on a plot of land behind the newly opened satellite office for the Logan County Health Department, started last year. This summer, it will see its first graduate, a man named Everett (who requested his last name not be used for this article).
For Everett, gardening has brought a sense of comfort to his life - something he's rarely experienced since first using opioids years ago. Now, through connections he's made at Fresh Start, he's looking at starting his own small business.
That's another aspect of Fresh Start: students are provided with a support system, between the staff and each other, both inside and outside the program. One student, Thomas Tolliver, was inspired by conversations with Chad Akers and others to raise money for childhood cancer in honor of his nephew, Jay Sean, who died last year at the age of four. He sold more than 50 shirts for Relay For Life with help from those at Fresh Start.
"I think I would have done that either way, here or not, but they made it easier, and they gave me the idea," Tolliver said. "The people here, they're always down to listen to our ideas or support them. It makes it easier to do those things."
One of the main goals of the Day Report Center, and of Fresh Start, is to help people in recovery become reconnected with their communities, which can be a difficult feat sometimes since negative rhetoric about drug addiction or the recovery communities can dominate conversations, Akers said.
When people are no longer in active addiction, they have a lot of free time they don't know what to do with, Michelle Akers said. While that time was once used for using drugs, it can now be used to pursue activities they didn't have the interest, or motivation, to try previously - like gardening.
"This was definitely not something I would have done before. I didn't know a thing about gardening or farming," Everett said. "Now I wish I could do more of it. It's fun, it's calming, and it feels good to know that the work we do each week is maybe helping others out there."
The produce harvested from Fresh Start in Logan is given to the Hungry Lambs food pantry, which is housed in the same building as the health department's satellite office.
At many food pantries, fresh produce can be a novelty, said Linda Marsh, president of Hungry Lambs, which is chartered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It's easier for organizations to access nonperishables like crackers, canned meat, cereal and cookies than things that may rot more quickly, like lettuce and broccoli, she said.
But fresh foods are imperative to healthy living, and in Southern West Virginia, which is home to a number of food deserts - areas where residents cannot easily or affordably access fresh food like fruits and vegetables - farming initiatives like Fresh Start can be a way to help combat the problem, said Matthew Thompson with the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition.
The Lincoln County and Boone County Fresh Start programs recently partnered with the Food and Farm Coalition to grow the initiative. While the partnership is still in its infancy, Thompson sees the two groups working together in the future to apply for grants and grow the program to its full potential.
For Thompson, the benefits of the partnership are obvious.
"Our main goal is to support communities for food access, as well as viable opportunities for farmers and new farmers. We see this as a great opportunity for folks in the recovery world to find a lucrative avenue to employment," Thompson said. "I really see the connection between food insecurity and the opioid crisis. Whenever you're food insecure, in a low income area, it's going to lead to other factors - choices or habits, maybe - that contribute to addiction. Hopefully, when you have food available, it can make a positive impact."
There are around 17,000 people labeled as food insecure across Logan, Mingo, Boone and Lincoln counties, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit focused on hunger relief. That's nearly 17 percent of the counties' residents.
In addition to being food insecure, many in the region rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP, or food stamps, to buy the food they can access.
On average, West Virginia households receiving SNAP benefits are granted $222 a month for food, according to the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Households with children receive an average of $368 a month. This evens out to about $1.30 in SNAP benefits per person, per meal.
In Logan County alone, the average meal cost is $2.78, according to Feeding America - more than double what's provided by SNAP.
When SNAP dollars run out, families regularly turn to food pantries, like Hungry Lamb, which Marsh said sees an average of 16,000 visitors annually.
Being able to include produce from the Fresh Start program - last Wednesday, students hauled more than 30 pounds of food to the pantry - is a win for Marsh and Hungry Lambs, she said.
"We wouldn't be able to do what we do each week without (the students at Fresh Start)," Marsh said. "They bring us the food, but they also help us with handouts, loading and unloading, organizing, everything. They want to help, and they do."
Having students in Fresh Start support the food pantry also helps Michelle Akers fight another battle: destigmatizing addiction and recovery communities.
The students at Fresh Start, who all at one time struggled with opioid addiction, are more than "addicts or junkies or any other of those other words people try to throw around to dehumanize them and ignore their struggles," Michelle Akers said. "These are people who made a choice to get better, to help themselves and now, help everyone else around them. They are some of the kindest people and some of the most hardworking."
In recent weeks, addiction has been a hot-button topic for Logan County. Last month, the county commission voted to draft an ordinance to ban needle exchange programs within the county limits, and that discussion sparked a lot of negative, harmful rhetoric and misinformation spreading through the area - both on social media and in person.
"The general public, I don't think they understand the severity of the problem, of the drug epidemic," said Rocky Adkins, Logan County administrator. "We all hear, you know, everyone knows someone who is addicted or has been, but I don't think everyone takes a step back and sees what it means for our communities - how widespread the ramifications are."
Michelle and Chad Akers said they hope Fresh Start can be a reminder to people that addiction isn't the end of someone's life. That in recovery, people can return to their communities and contribute just as much - in some cases, more - than those who've never used drugs.
"We're not treating addicts here, we're treating people that have made the choice to get help and get better. They've made the choice to be here. They've made the choice to give their time to help others around them," Michelle Akers said.
"The students I get to work with here, some of them make me look lazy by the drive they have. You see them out here in the pouring rain, that's not going to stop them," Chad Akers said. "They're invested in this, in their recovery. We, as a community, need to invest in them, too."