ELKHORN

Leaders at the public health departments for Walworth and Rock counties are hoping new full-time staffers solely dedicated to the opioid crisis can align efforts to combat the drug’s impact.

The two counties have or will soon utilize the services of full-time substance-use reduction coordinators from AmeriCorps’ Volunteers in Service to America (known as VISTA) program.

Paige Mueller, a recent graduate of UW-La Crosse from Waupun, started working with Walworth County’s Department of Health and Human Services in late November.

Mueller will connect various county groups fighting opioid addiction and help coordinate one cohesive response, said Erica Bergstrom, manager of the Walworth County Division of Public Health.

Mueller is one of six people placed throughout the state in her position, one that Bergstrom said is new to Walworth County and Wisconsin. VISTA program members have worked with “organizations that help eradicate poverty,” according to its website.

“I’ve always just been passionate about giving back and making an impact in the lives of people,” Mueller said.

Mueller works from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. She started her role by interviewing people in law enforcement and social services to hear what they think could be done on the subject.

She also is tasked with working with the Walworth County Drug and Alcohol Coalition and the Open Arms Free Clinic, Bergstrom said.

Although her responsibilities are as general as raising awareness on the issue, one of Mueller’s more specific tasks involves planning “Hidden in Plain Sight,” a walk-through model of a bedroom designed to show adults which seemingly innocent items can really be signs of addiction.

The model, which Bergstrom said came from Janesville’s Mobilizing 4 Change, will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. April 30, at Bigfoot High School in Walworth during parent-teacher conferences.

The exhibit is for adults to better understand what innocuous items are used for substance abuse, Mueller said. The exhibit will be available only for those older than 21 so as not to provide drug use ideas to younger people.

Mueller added her position will give her real-world experience on the front lines of substance abuse, which she may want to combine with her interest in mental health for a future career.

While so many hands are at work to fight back against rampant opioid addiction, Bergstrom said that fight is one part on the list of many employees who have other responsibilities.

“We didn’t have staff fully dedicated to the level that (Mueller) has with community outreach,” Bergstrom said. “Paige has really brought together all of the different parties and has then taken it to a preventative standpoint and really identified a method and a tool we can use for outreach with an at-risk population.”

Starting this month, Rock County will gain its own substance-use reduction coordinator, said David Pluymers, assistant director of the Rock County Public Health Department.

Rock County’s VISTA member is a Beloit College graduate, and Pluymers said he was pleased it was someone with knowledge of the area and its challenges.

Pluymers said he hopes Rock County’s coordinator will provide a formal assessment to get the “data we need to fully understand the extent and the breadth of the issue in Rock County.”

Pluymers is anecdotally aware of how real the issue is, but he said more complete data would provide a full picture.

The assessment will, “help us assess where our priorities should be,” he said.

“Oh, it means quite a bit for us,” Pluymers said. “It’s a resource and a capacity we’ve not had up until this point.”

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