For addiction recovery, don’t discount power of a good paycheck

Image of  Jason McConnell smiling in a blue polo shirt, holding a phot of him deejaying while standing in front of a white stone wall

Longtime area deejay Jason McConnell relied on income from his self-owned businesses during the early stages of recovery from a substance use disorder.

The Wright Center and allies in newly formed Project PROGRESS aim to expand work options for region’s residents seeking to overcome substance use disorders

Earning money came easily for Jason McConnell from the time he was a teen, pulling in hundreds of dollars per night at area hotspots as a popular deejay.

The Olyphant native’s prospects sank fast, however, as a substance use disorder that first surfaced in high school began destroying his business relationships, his credit rating and his life. The lucrative weekend gigs declined, until finally one night the college dropout found himself playing music at one of the few spots that would still agree to hire him:
a strip club.

Humiliated and dejected, he quit, left the club and drove straight to a liquor store. Before his Saturday night ended, McConnell, then in his mid-20s, had been charged with a DUI offense.

“That was really the turning point,” says McConnell, now 30 and sober for nearly six years. “The day after that DUI, I remember sitting in a rocker at my parents’ house, beneath the deck, and I felt so empty inside. That’s when I was like, ‘Let’s do whatever we have to do. I can’t live like this anymore.’”

For people like McConnell who are intent on overcoming a substance use disorder and leading a healthier life, the challenge often goes beyond dealing with the physical and psychological addiction. They also face financial hurdles, often because social stigma and other barriers prevent them from vying for desirable jobs or even entering quality educational and training programs. Their road to recovery becomes blocked, potentially resulting in poor outcomes, even relapse.

The Wright Center for Community Health – a Scranton-based provider of primary care, medication-assisted treatment and recovery-related services in Northeast Pennsylvania – recognizes how difficult it can be to get and stay sober, especially if a person struggles to find and maintain well-paying employment. That’s why The Wright Center is leading a regional initiative called Project PROGRESS.

The project, which was launched in mid-2022, aims to expand opportunities for people living in recovery to find meaningful and family-sustaining employment, including careers in the health care field. Fueled by grant funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the project’s promoters will engage with business owners and leaders across multiple industries to reduce the unfair stigma associated with substance use disorders and remove obstacles that prohibit workplace participation. Along the way, promoters believe this long-term effort to address the damage done by the nation’s opioid crisis can foster greater compassion toward people coping with substance use disorders and improve our region’s still-healing communities.

Picture of Jason McConnell smiling in a blue polo shirt, standing in front of a white wall

‘When I got sober I realized it was a second chance at being happy, being everything that I ever wanted to be,” says Olyphant native Jason McConnell, who now works at The Wright Center for Community Health as a certified recovery specialist.

“Project PROGRESS helps to close the loop for those in our midst who are successfully addressing their substance use disorders but need steady employment to continue on their recovery journeys,” says Meaghan Ruddy, The Wright Center’s senior vice president of academic affairs, enterprise assessment and advancement, and chief research and development officer. “Treatment options for substance use disorders are plentiful and effective. But good jobs with empathetic employers can be significantly harder to find.”

Project PROGRESS relies on the support of multiple partners, including the AllOne Recovery Educational Institute of Luzerne County Community College, the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development, the Northeast Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center, and the Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance.

The initiative has already provided free training to dozens of individuals seeking to enter health care careers as certified recovery specialists and community health workers. Next, the founders of Project PROGRESS intend to promote greater awareness about a network of recovery-friendly employers in the region who can extend job opportunities in health care, manufacturing, retail and other industries.

Finding an empathetic employer

In McConnell’s case, his ability to earn money immediately after treatment – and while living in the vulnerable stage of early recovery – was hobbled by the lack of a college degree. But he had an entrepreneurial drive. He managed to slowly revive his deejay operation while also launching a cellphone repair service. Then, during a health checkup at The Wright Center, another job prospect emerged.

Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, The Wright Center’s president and CEO, who also had been McConnell’s longtime physician, knew about the impressive strides he had made toward changing his life for the better. “She said that I would be great for a position as a certified recovery specialist,” he recalls.

McConnell suspended business at his cellphone shop for two weeks so that he could complete the required training, then began work as a certified recovery specialist – a person who has gone through the recovery process and can serve as a mentor, role model and motivator for those beginning the journey.

“When I meet a new patient, I try to explain to them that I’ve been where they’re at,” he says. “The job involves a lot of talking about your personal experience and giving suggestions.”

Through the Project PROGRESS program, training to become a certified recovery specialist has been provided by Luzerne County Community College to dozens of individuals. More trainees are expected to soon enter the pipeline. Similarly, the Northeast Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center offers preparation to become a community
health worker.

McConnell can attest that patients who lack a post-high school education might not find it easy to land a decent job, because they are all too commonly viewed by certain employers as having three strikes against them. “Without an education, getting a job after being in active addiction and possibly having a criminal record from past behavior – forget about it,” he says. “It’s nearly impossible.”

Even for job-seekers with impressive resumes, employers might not provide the flexible schedules necessary to treat their disorders, especially if that involves weekly doctor’s appointments for medication-assisted treatment. “How can someone work a typical 9-to-5 shift,” asks McConnell, “when they have to go to doctor’s appointments, get involved in a recovery program and constantly work on themselves?”

‘Second chance at being happy’

In his role as a certified recovery specialist, McConnell prioritizes his patients’ schedules and stays accessible by phone call and text. Although based at The Wright Center’s Mid Valley Practice in Jermyn, he moves throughout the area, meeting patients where they are at, even if that means a corner coffee shop. His workdays can be mentally and emotionally draining due to the intensity of some conversations, he says. But he remains eager to talk with patients and other audiences, particularly school groups, sharing the powerful story of his personal journey and hoping to help people avoid or recover from similar mistakes.

McConnell, a 2009 graduate of Mid Valley High School in Throop, traces his troubles back to energy drinks. At 15 or 16, he began consuming the highly caffeinated beverages for the rush.

“From there, I experimented,” he says. He moved from marijuana and alcohol to prescription pills, then to eventually buying opioids off the street from strangers.

“I think I was just chasing a feeling,” he says.

Under addiction’s grip, he fell off of the college track. He took a string of sales jobs, hastily leaving each when his performance lagged or he couldn’t get drugs delivered to the site. His downward spiral culminated with legal troubles, shattered relationships and multiple car mishaps, including serious crashes and a string of minor ones. “Right before I got sober, I was the king of popping tires,” he says. “I crushed so many curbs.”

Finally, McConnell was facing a DUI charge and contemplating the far-reaching consequences of his mistakes. “That solidified it for me,” he says. “I don’t think I was any more willing to enter rehabilitation than at that moment.”

Thanks to the Pocono Mountain Recovery Center, the Geisinger Marworth outpatient treatment program, his family, other supporters and his own determination, McConnell got the appropriate care for his disorder.

He was able to put his life on a whole new trajectory. He gradually restored his credit rating. He even turned his once-tarnished deejay business into a thriving moonlighting enterprise.

“When I got sober, I realized it was a second chance at being happy, being everything that I ever wanted to be,” he says. “And with a clear mind, you can go a long way.”

Project PROGRESS aims to connect individuals and recovery-friendly employers in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties. For more information, visit ProjectPROGRESSnepa.org.

Celebrating Pride Month in June

Alexies Samonte, M.D., MBA, FAAP, vice president of Sponsoring Institution Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), will present a monthly video addressing important topics that enable The Wright Center to achieve DEI in the workplace, as well as in the greater community.

The inaugural video celebrates Pride Month in June and offers three important ways everyone can show their support of the LGBTQIA+ community here in Northeast Pennsylvania and around the world.

DEI strategist Arthur Chan once said, “Diversity initiatives, though well intentioned, are not merely enough if organizations are not focused on the outcome – belonging.” Therefore, “Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action. Belonging is an outcome,” he said.

Please turn to our news page or monitor The Wright Center’s social media platforms for Dr. Samonte’s monthly DEI video.

The Wright Center offers COVID-19 vaccine appointments to youngest children, ages 6 months to 5 years

Dr. Jignesh Sheth

Dr. Jignesh Y. Sheth,
Chief Medical Officer

Infants and preschoolers are now able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and appointments can be scheduled for children in this age group (ages 6 months to 5 years) at several of The Wright Center for Community Health’s primary care practices in Northeast Pennsylvania.

The littlest children became eligible for the vaccines last week, after federal regulators granted approval to using mini-doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna products that have proven to be so effective in protecting older children and adults.

The approval means that about 18 million additional American children can become vaccinated against the very contagious and potentially deadly virus. All children, including children who have already had COVID-19, should get vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Parents and caregivers with concerns about the safety or effectiveness of the vaccines in young children should contact their health care provider to have a fact-based, non-judgmental conversation,” said Dr. Jignesh Sheth, chief medical officer of The Wright Center for Community Health. “At The Wright Center, we want our patients to make informed decisions about the care that they and their children receive.”

Appointments for preschoolers to receive the vaccine can be made at any of these Wright Center primary care clinics:

  • Kingston Practice, 2 Sharpe St., Kingston: 570.491.0126
  • Mid Valley Practice, 5 S. Washington Ave., Jermyn: 570.230.0019
  • Scranton Practice, 501 S. Washington Ave., Scranton: 570.941.0630

Pfizer’s vaccine has been approved for youngsters ages 6 months through 4 years. Its shots for this age group are only one-tenth its adult dosage and will be given in a three-shot series.

Moderna’s vaccine is intended for youngsters ages 6 months through 5 years. Its shots for this age group contain one-quarter the dose of the company’s adult vaccine. It will be administered in a two-dose series, and the company expects to later offer a booster.

Pharmacists in Pennsylvania are allowed to provide COVID-19 vaccines only to children ages 3 and up, according to the state Department of Health. Parents and guardians seeking appointments for children under 3 years old should contact a pediatrician, family doctor or other qualified physician.

For more information about The Wright Center’s services, including its COVID-19 vaccination, testing and treatment services, call 570.230.0019 or visit TheWrightCenter.org.

The Wright Center for Community Health accepting COVID-19 vaccination appointments for children ages 5-11

Scranton, Pa. (Nov. 3, 2021) – The Wright Center for Community Health began scheduling and administering kid-sized doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11 on Wednesday, Nov. 3 at four regional primary care practices in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the vaccines for the pediatric age group.

The unanimous decision by the CDC on Nov. 2 enables this new age group to receive 10-micrograms of the Pfizer vaccine – a third of the amount given to teens and adults. With parental consent, eligible children will receive two shots, three weeks apart. The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization of the vaccine on Oct. 29.

“Approval of the pediatric vaccine by the CDC is an important development as we work together to end the global pandemic through vaccinations, masking and social distancing,” said Dr. Jignesh Y. Sheth, chief medical officer and senior vice president at The Wright Center for Community Health. “The vaccine will offer a high level of protection for children ages 5-11 and slow the spread of the virus among others in our community, especially during the upcoming holiday season. It is also another step closer to normalcy for society and helping our school-aged children to remain in school for in-person learning.”

Due to the CDC’s recommendation, which was also fully endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatricians, about 28 million children in the new age group will be eligible to receive a vaccination. The CDC recommended vaccinations for children, ages 12-15, in May. 

“We will continue to encourage all Pennsylvanians to get their COVID-19 vaccine, and we are very excited that we can now include children ages 5 and over in that effort,” Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said in a state Department of Health press release. “To fellow parents I say: If you have a child between 5 and 11, get them vaccinated and give your child the power to safely learn, play and be a kid.”

Appointments to receive the pediatric vaccine may be made at the following Wright Center for Community Health clinics: Scranton Practice, 501 S. Washington Ave.; Mid Valley Practice, 5 S. Washington Ave., Jermyn; South Franklin Street Practice, 335 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre, and West Scranton Intermediate School-Based Health, 1401 Fellows St., Scranton. To make an appointment, visit TheWrightCenter.org or call 570-230-0019. 

The Wright Center for Community Health has been administering third doses and booster shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to eligible age groups as per CDC guidelines. People should talk to their health care provider about their medical condition and whether or not getting an additional dose or booster is appropriate for them.

The Wright Center for Community Health’s Driving Better Health offering vaccinations and well-check services at Keystone Mission

Scranton, Pa. (Oct. 14, 2021) – The Wright Center for Community Health is partnering with Keystone Mission to provide on-site COVID-19 testing, well-check services, and COVID-19 and flu vaccinations to residents of the mission and surrounding North Scranton neighborhood from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 8-12 W. Olive St., Scranton.

The regional health care provider will utilize its 34-foot mobile medical clinic, Driving Better Health, to provide services in conjunction with its community partner. Keystone Mission is an award-winning, regional faith-based, nonprofit organization that transforms the lives of homeless men and women in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. 

“Keystone Mission works hand in glove with regional community social service agencies to provide support to people in our homeless communities in Northeast Pennsylvania,” said Justin V. Behrens, L.S.W., CEO and executive director of Keystone Mission. “I believe I am speaking for everyone at Keystone Mission when I say we are extremely grateful for the medical attention The Wright Center is providing to the people we serve. Together, we are working to provide them with healthy minds, bodies and spirits.”

The Wright Center for Community Health will administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which was approved in August by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for individuals 12 and older. Although the health care screening and vaccinations are primarily for residents of Keystone Mission, walk-up appointments also are welcome throughout the day.

To make an appointment call 570-343-2382 or go online at TheWrightCenter.org. The Wright Center will never deny health care services based on a patient’s inability to pay. 

“The Wright Center for Community Health works collaboratively with community agencies to make outreach to underserved communities in Northeast Pennsylvania,” said Robin Rosencrans, practice manager for Driving Better Health. “Our mobile clinic makes vaccinations and well-check services accessible for people who otherwise might not have necessary transportation for appointments with primary care providers.”

Driving Better Health features two fully equipped examination operatories. It is a way to bring health care to the region’s most vulnerable, underserved populations. It is staffed by a multidisciplinary, bilingual primary care team of clinicians who will deliver primary health care to those most in need. 

GME’s National Family Medicine Residency Program Offers ‘Innovations in Community Care’

A Virtual Series that Addresses Innovative Health Care for Underserved Populations

Scranton, Pa. (Oct. 8, 2021) – The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education is offering the nine-week video series, “Innovations in Community Care: A Virtual Series,” on The Wright Center for Community Health’s YouTube channel. 

The informative series includes brief talks about topics in community medicine and how faculty and residents in a family medicine residency program provide innovative, high-quality care to underserved populations in communities they serve. The series’ playlist can be found here.

The series was produced under the guidance of Lawrence LeBeau, D.O., national family medicine residency program director at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. The presentation and discussion series was organized by faculty in The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education’s National Family Medicine Residency Program’s affiliated community health center partners: El Rio Health, Tucson, Arizona; Unity Health Care, Washington, D.C.; HealthSource of Ohio, Hillsboro, Ohio, and HealthPoint, Auburn, Washington.

The topics include: 

  • “Value of POCUS in Low-Resource Settings,” with Andrew Will Dixon, M.D., and James Huang, M.D.;
  • “Innovative Approaches to Refugee Health Care in the FQHC Setting,” presented by Dr. Shoshana Aleinikoff, M.D.;
  • “FQHC-Hospital Partnership,” with Tara Simpson, M.D.; 
  • “Lifestyle Management through Group Visits,” presented by Darlene Lawrence, M.D.: 
  • “Asylum Evaluations,” with Andrew Will Dixon, M.D., and Catherine Njiru-Sewer, D.O.;
  • “Low Barrier Care Model for People with Substance Use Disorders,” presented by Nathan Kittle, M.D., and Cara Dalbey, Psy.D.;
  • “Medicine for the Incarcerated,” with Eleni O’Donovan, M.D., and Khalid Ebrahim, M.D.;
  • “Medicine for the Unhoused,” presented by Andrew Will Dixon, M.D., and Anam Whyne, D.O.;
  • “Osteopathic Practice in the FQHC Setting,” with Gayatri Menon, D.O.