JEFFERSONVILLE — When Nancy Woodworth-Hill and Don Hill, co-pastors at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Jeffersonville moved to the city from New York State just over eight years ago, it was in some ways, a different place.
The Big Four pedestrian bridge connecting Southern Indiana to Louisville had not yet opened, and downtown streets now dotted with new restaurants and shops were a little quieter.
So, too, has the community been changed by the work of the Hills — through their leadership at St. Paul's and through Nancy's role in Clark County CARES, a grassroots community group that's made noticeable strides in the past four and a half years in tackling opioid and addiction issues.
They're lessons that won't be forgotten when the couple moves next month for a new clergy post in West Virginia.
A NEW OPPORTUNITY
Later this month, Nancy will take over as the priest in charge of Lawrencefield Parish Church in Wheeling, W.Va. She'll also be the consultant of spiritual direction and spiritual programming at the diocese retreat center.
But a part of the pair will always be in Clark County — the place they knew nothing about when they accepted the position in 2011, expecting to stay two or three years.
"It's been a great place to be," Nancy said. "I've fallen in love with the people I've met here. The parishioners, they value acceptance and cohesiveness and cooperation, and those are lovely values.
"The downtown clergy group is an amazing group...somebody a long time ago figured out that we shouldn't be competitors. We're different, but we do a lot of things together."
IN THE RIGHT PLACE
While the couple was getting settled into their new community and trying to decide where best their outreach efforts could be used, a crisis was brewing as the opioid addiction strengthened its hold on families and the community.
By 2015, neighboring Scott County became known nationally as its concentrated HIV outbreak unfolded — largely transmitted through intravenous drug use.
Though that particular issue hadn't hit Clark County as hard, people were dying from overdoses, families fractured from addiction. Some in the community wanted to make sure to get a handle on it before it got worse, and started talking about how to do it.
Barb Anderson, executive director at Haven House, met with the Hills and set up a community meeting at the church.
"They just stepped up right away," Anderson said. Nancy facilitated that first meeting of Clark County CARES, a meeting Anderson said had some tension just from the various personalities and backgrounds in the room — police officers, people who had lost families members to drugs, people who used drugs themselves, others in the community — but Nancy handled it with a calm grace, Anderson said. And she's done it ever since.
"Her level of respect for other people I think is huge," Anderson said. "You don't meet many people with her spirit."
"She's a leader that can lead through very turbulent waters, but she needs to know there's something at the end that's going to result in a peaceful resolution."
A COMMUNITY UNITED
Over the four and-a-half years since that first meeting, Nancy has facilitated the group of people with varying ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and professions, who collaborate to raise awareness about addiction and advocate for policy changes and institutions that can help those affected.
"We started with storytelling because everybody has a story," Nancy said. "They're all sacred stories, all of them."
And that was just the beginning. Nancy, working with Clark County health officials and others, advocated for a syringe exchange program, a place where people who use intravenous drugs could exchange their used needles for clean ones, to help stop the transmission of disease. In early 2017, The Interchange opened in Jeffersonville, also offering resources such as HIV testing, medical information and connections to recovery options, if the client wants and is ready for that.
"It took 18 months, but we got one and now there are graduates of that syringe exchange," Nancy said. "Is it work that I did? No, I just facilitated it. So many other people did." In 2017, the county saw the biggest drop in overdose deaths in three years with 60; this followed the 90 deaths in 2016.
The group also has worked to implement wider use of the opioid overdose revival drug naloxone, getting it into the hands of more emergency personnel as well as community members. Clark County CARES has hosted training sessions in which a person can get a free dosage, which may later be needed for a friend, family member or stranger experiencing an overdose.
The group has traveled to other communities, too, to see how they've handled their issues with drugs and addiction, and annually hosts the seven-day Drug Facts Week, a series of panels and workshops meant to educate about opioid addiction, reduce the stigma and make space for new conversations.
It's from this group that Nancy said she's learned the most during her time in Clark County — skills she can comfortably take to a new community now.
"I've learned that we can get a group of people focused on an issue even though there are huge differences," she said. "It's possible by focusing on the positive, what people care about, what they are willing to spend their time on.
"What has been wonderful is to watch them develop relationships and to be able to work together even though they are aware of the differences between them. That's been a beautiful thing to see."
Don Hill said he's loved the opportunity to work alongside his wife in the church, their skills complementing each other's; she's the educator, more intuitive, he said. He's more pragmatic.
Serving in Jeffersonville is not an experience he will forget.
"It's been a very unique, remarkable experience," Don said. "Partly because I have had the pleasure of watching Nancy — this is the first time she's been in the role of pastor.
"To watch her grow into that and eventually lead pastor, it's been an absolute delight...and to see the way the community has responded to her and the various opportunities."
Malinda Mackenzie, now a board member in Clark County CARES, recalls her first meeting. She was hesitant, not sure what to expect.
"I thought 'I'll go to one,'" she said. "Nancy was the facilitator and I was instantly drawn to her because she stays on task. I was hooked."
What she's learned from Nancy since has been immeasurable, Mackenzie said.
"She has been so instrumental in teaching me and loving me in so many ways," Mackenzie said. "She's going to be so missed.
"She's that silent person behind the scenes that truly does care. Working with her and how positive she is and how she makes time for story even when we're in a rush world, I just appreciate that so much about her."
Nancy said she believes what Clark County CARES has started is a strong foundation that will grow even after she leaves. Now that the initial stages have been addressed — syringe exchange, naloxone, breaking down stigmas, learning from one another — it may be time to start focusing more on treatment.
"What I've been taught [is] of every dollar spent on the opioid epidemic, 90 cents goes toward crisis, 10 cents goes toward recovery," she said. "What would it look like if we began to support recovery instead of having relapse, crisis, relapse, crisis, relapse, crisis?"
That's started, in part with people discussing the recovery-oriented systems of care. The last meeting had more than 50 people in attendance. They will meet again Nov. 7.
"That will take time and energy to grow, but I think there's a lot of possibility, potential," she said.
Mackenzie said Nancy's work has helped set the stage for the future of these partnerships in Clark County, and although she can't be replaced, the group is strong on its own and will continue the fight.
"I can't think of anybody that could fill [her] shoes, that would be difficult," Mackenzie said. "But the foundation is set."