‘It's about a change of culture.’ In Littleton, supporting people in recovery is a team effort.
This is the second in a two-part series on the opioid crisis in northern New Hampshire. Read the other story here: In northern NH, the opioid crisis is getting worse. Communities are searching for answers — and more attention.
When Savanah Miller was growing up in Littleton, everyone seemed to know her. Her family owned businesses in town. She couldn’t speed without her mom seeming to find out about it.
So when she began struggling with substance use, the judgment felt inescapable.
“I would run away,” she said. “I wouldn't – I couldn't stand myself and I couldn't walk through my own town, because I was so embarrassed and ashamed.”
Back then, she said, substance use wasn’t really something people talked about. And even if she’d been able to admit she had a problem, she wouldn’t have known where to turn for help. She’d run off to cities, where she spiraled further into addiction.
Miller eventually broke that cycle, after a four-month stint in jail, and she’s now been in recovery for about five years. When she returned to Littleton in 2019, she noticed a shift.
“There was this, like, uprising of a recovery community in town,” she said.
Like other towns in the North Country, Littleton — a picturesque regional hub off I-93, home to about 6,000 people — was hit hard by the drug epidemic. But locals say it’s become something of a bright spot for people in recovery from addiction.
A network of services has sprung up to support people in recovery, and a community has formed around them.
“People are coming to Littleton because they know it's a place where not only can you get recovery, but you can sustain your recovery,” said Greg Williams, who works on substance misuse prevention for the Littleton-based North Country Health Consortium.
That change hasn’t come from any one thing. Williams and others say a lot of different community members, all working on different aspects of the problem, have teamed up over the past five or six years to find solutions.
A local drug counselor, tired of seeing clients leave treatment and end up in a homeless shelter, opened a network of sober living homes. That brought new people to the area, who started giving back at the local peer recovery center.
Public health workers for the North Country Health Consortium have launched campaigns to challenge stigma and pushed to make Narcan more widely available. They’ve also worked with the local police department to change how it responds to substance use issues.
Police Chief Paul Smith said the crisis seemed to worsen around 2017. At least five people died of overdoses in town that year. For him, it was a wakeup call.
His officers now go through training on substance use disorder and carry the overdose-reversal drug Narcan in their cruisers.
“I just don't want to have to do another death notification and say, Hey, your son or daughter has passed away because they overdosed on fentanyl,” Smith said.
One of the department’s civilian employees is a trained recovery coach. Smith’s tried to encourage a shift in thinking throughout his department.
“It's not about being sober, it's about a lifetime of recovery,” he said. “And understanding that perspective can kind of change how the officers really look at how they can help somebody.”
At Genfoot, a footwear manufacturer that employs about 75 people here, manager Mark Bonta said they’ve also changed how they do business. Some of that has been informed by New Hampshire’s Recovery Friendly Workplaces program, an effort to help employers better support staff living with substance use disorder.
“Rather than firing somebody that needs help, don't pull the rug out from underneath them,” Bonta said. “Let's talk to him, talk him into getting into recovery instead.”
Genfoot now has policies allowing people who relapse to keep their jobs if they engage with treatment. Employees have flexibility in their schedules to attend 12-step groups and telehealth appointments. And Bonta says there have been a lot of open conversations about what it means to be in recovery.
“It's about a change of culture,” he said.
Across the community, much of that change is being led by people in recovery themselves.
On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen people are hanging out and chatting inside The Shed at Serenity Center, a peer recovery center about a block from the shops and steeples of Littleton’s main drag. There’s a chess set in the middle of the room, artwork and affirming messages on the walls. People sometimes show up with babies in tow.
“Not only do we recover together, but we grow up together,” says Jaimie D’Alessandro, a peer support worker who helps run the center.
This place is a hub for the local recovery community. It hosts peer support meetings and other recovery-friendly activities nearly every day. Recovery coaches are on hand to connect people with jobs, housing and other resources. People can drop in if they need a safe space to work on a resume or just pass the time.
D’Alessandro says Littleton offers support systems for people in recovery that other places in the North Country just don’t have. The center, and the community it fosters, are a big part of that.
“The ability to walk into a place where someone can sit down with you that has walked in your shoes, understand what you've been through, and then guide them in the right direction to get and sustain recovery is absolutely crucial,” he says.
That’s been the case for Erika Sturgeon, who arrived in town in 2020, looking for a fresh start.
She’d gone to rehab after losing custody of her son. In Littleton, she found a supportive sober home, parenting classes, peer support groups and a job with Genfoot where she didn’t feel judged.
“That's huge, when you have a safe place to live, on top of having a safe environment where you can go to work, and they support you,” she said.
Today, Sturgeon works at the center as a recovery coach herself. She’s putting down roots in Littleton. And she’s been reunited with her son for about two years.
“I get to be a mom today,” she said. “I never thought that I would be able to be a mom again.”
Littleton hasn’t solved the issue of substance use. The town’s fire chief says overdoses rose again last year, as they did statewide. And plenty of barriers to treatment and recovery still remain, from inadequate transportation to the lack of mental health providers.
But Miller says all the community supports here are making a difference. She now works for the North Country Health Consortium, drawing on her own experience as a person in recovery to help others.
She says the changing culture in town makes it easier for people who are struggling to ask for help.
“There's so many people here now that loudly recover and let people know, ‘Hey, I'm in recovery,’ ” she said. “And, you know, they're not scared to say it nowadays.”