Frontline Worker Spotlight - Christa Thomas Sowers
Every Sunday, including Easter, Christa Thomas-Sowers, Community Outreach Coordinator, connects with people most at-risk by attending the meal program at Bouley Field in Woonsocket.
It is Christa’s genuine respect for everyone that allows her to gain the confidence of individuals she meets this way. “I love connecting with people in the community. We have an incredible, resilient group of people living in Woonsocket. There is so much character, and I regularly see people going out of their way to lift each other up, even if they are struggling with housing or other basic needs themselves.”
During the week, she wears several hats, varying from coordinating with local doctors, community partners, and EMS, to physical outreach with people who use drugs in our community. During outreach, Christa walks around the city of Woonsocket, accompanied by Jennifer Rancourt from Discovery House, the Outreach Team from AIDS Care Ocean State, or Sarah Edwards, a Recovery Coach from Parent Support Network/HOPE Recovery Center.
“We hand out Naloxone (Narcan), and provide an array of harm reduction services, including needle exchange, condoms and other safe-sex materials, and fentanyl test strips. We talk to people to gather their experience, offer support, or just engage in a friendly conversation. Additionally, we can provide referrals to treatment, if and when people are interested in services.”
Michelle Taylor, VP of Social Health Services describes Christa’s abilities. “She is a tireless advocate for the people we serve, saying what needs to be said, even when others don't want to hear it. Her delivery is so gentle and loving that we are forced to listen. Often, this is changing attitudes. As if that were not enough, Christa lives and embraces the "Black Lives Matter" movement and is a champion for racial equity. She is fearless in her efforts to bring love and respect to all and to provide education to those who don't understand why this is so tremendously important.”
Christa says that walking the beat as an outreach liaison is different with the pandemic. “So much has changed with the compounding realities of our “new” lives during a pandemic, colliding with an increasing overdose epidemic, an unprecedented housing crisis, and the racial attacks and tension escalating in the country. I have never experienced a time where people are living under so much pressure. The trauma experienced when people are using and living on the street is severe, and to have the added complications of the restrictions placed on our establishments by COVID has led to a critical situation. The virus has led to the closing-down of so many local public establishments that our community relies on for stability, and safety. If nothing else, this experience has shown me how imperative it is that we as a community approach these social issues with a wide, intersectional lens, so that we can effectively advocate for and uplift those we set out to serve. We have seen many structural inequities highlighted by this pandemic, and there is no time like the present to push for constructive, positive change.”
In the last several months, Christa has distributed over 1,000 Naloxone kits in Woonsocket and provided education about safer use among people using substances.
“Christa's work is literally life-saving. We have lost count of the number of times that she has been informed that the Naloxone she provided saved the life of a friend or the individual themselves. Because she is so well-respected by others in the community, she is integral to bringing in resources to support the most vulnerable. On a daily basis, she is changing hearts and minds,” said Michelle Taylor.
What stands out for Christa? “When people report to me that they were able to use the Naloxone we gave to them to save someone’s life… Every time I know that we are able to give someone else the opportunity at another shot at life, or recovery, or the ability to go home to their family, instead of ending up a number in a long line of statistics, it makes me love my job more.”
“Anytime I am able to have an open, non-coercive and non-judgmental conversation about someone’s drug use—or other stigmatized life circumstance—I feel that I’m able to offer help. To show each and every person that I come in contact with that their life is important, that they are each valuable and that they deserve to be safe and healthy. To be caught in the complex tangle of homelessness, living with substance use disorder or mental illness, and the re-occurring trauma of poverty or abuse is already a steep, uphill battle. To offer empathy and support, in addition to evidence-based harm reduction practices, creates a space in which healing can begin to occur. I have also had numerous reports of successful overdose revivals using the Naloxone we have distributed in the community. This means that our true frontline in the overdose crisis—people who use drugs—along with their friends, family, partners, or neighbors, have been using our Naloxone kits to save lives.”
This harm reduction, boots on the ground work isn’t always seen positively. Christa thinks about it philosophically and lends a point of view not often discussed.
“I’m fascinated by following the intersectional strings which have led to the current moment in history, within and outside of the bounds of the overdose crisis. I think that the framework provided to us through harm reduction principles provides imperative detail for successful social change. As taken directly from the Harm Reduction Coalition’s mission statement, “Recognizing that social inequality and injustice magnify drug-related harm and limit the voice of our most vulnerable communities....” With this lens, we can begin to take a more holistic approach to healing the communities most impacted by drug-related harms, and uplift the health of people who use drugs while honoring their personal path and self-determination.”
“Lastly, this fight is personal for me, not only because of my love for the vibrant community in Woonsocket, but also because it is a way for me to honor dear friends I have lost to overdose related death in recent years. Nobody should have to die due to the shame of stigma surrounding drug use, or lack of access to medications like Naloxone. There is nothing I would rather be doing, and I’m deeply grateful to have the support of my supervisor and my organization to continue this important work.
Michelle Taylor would add, “Christa inspires me daily to be a better version of myself and to strive to care about others in the most selfless way possible.”