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00000174-c556-d691-a376-cdd69e980000Day after day, week after week, the headlines in Northeast Ohio and across much of the country contain news of tragic loss: lives lost to opioids. It’s a problem that knows no bounds: geography, race, gender, level of education or income.The problem took on new urgency this summer as the powerful elephant sedative, Carfentanil, began hitting the streets. First responders armed with their only weapon, the overdose antidote Naloxone, have struggled to keep up with what’s become an overwhelming problem. It’s an issue that’s straining public and social resources. What has become clear is that business as usual is not going to fix the problem.WKSU news has been covering the unfolding crisis. Tuesdays during Morning Edition, the WKSU news team digs even deeper. WKSU reporters will examine what’s led us here and what might be done to turn the tide. Support for Opioids: Turning the Tide in the Crisis comes from Wayne Savings Community Bank, Kent State University Office of Continuing and Distance Education, Hometown Grocery Delivery, Mercy Medical Center, AxessPointe Community Health Center, Community Support Services, Inc., Medina County District Library and Hudson Community First.00000174-c556-d691-a376-cdd69e980001

Akronite Heads to Houston to Help With Hurricane and Addiction Recovery

Tonia Wright and Tugg Massa
Amanda Rabinowitz

Tugg Massa is one of the Ohioans who headed to Houston this week to help clean up after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. But as WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports for Ohio Public Radio, the Akronite’s reason for the trip is tied as much to another crisis – the nation’s addiction crisis. 

Massa spent 27 years actively feeding his addiction. The last four he’s been sober and running a self-help group called Akron Say No to Dope. He’s got a friend who runs one of the temporary staffing agencies that’s supplying labor for the cleanup in Houston.

Massa says both of them know the kind of desperation that leads some people to apply for those temp jobs. So he was recruited to head to Houston as kind of a counselor, crew boss and message of sobriety hope.

“I’ve been down here ministering to quite a few people and seem to be getting through to them. They keep calling me sir, and I say, ‘No, I’m Tugg. I’m just like you except for I’m on this side of addiction now, and I’m able to help people.’”

'He knows who's coming to try to get the jobs. It's the guy that's been in prison a couple times. It's probably the people that are addicted. It's somebody that doesn't have a good work history.'

The reason he’s there is his own experience coupled with that of a friend who runs temporary staffing agencies around the country.

“He’s done this for quite a while. When things of this nature comes into play, he knows who’s coming to try to get the jobs. It’s probably the guy that’s been in prison a couple times. It’s probably the people that are addicted. It’s somebody that doesn’t have a good work history. These people are willing to do the jobs that you or I are not willing to do.” Then he pauses and corrects himself: “I will do any job.”

The job now is cleaning out a flooded storage complex and the prized belongings – and memories -- of many people.

“There’s people’s whole lives in there that are just ruined. Personal pictures, … service medals … baby shoes, antiques that were passed down generation to generation.”

It’s emotionally taxing for anyone, including those fighting addiction. But Massa says there’s a kind of balance at play here.

'If you're not doing service work and you're not giving back to the community, you're not really part of the solution. You're just faking it to make it.'

One of the 19 people he’s working with – half of whom he believes are addicts – was released from prison a few weeks ago. He told Massa he put in applications every day since his release, but got no work. And Massa says he describes Harvey’s damage as “a blessing and devastating at the same time. Devastating that these people had to lose all their things but on the same hand it’s a blessing because they are able to work.

Massa says he has an important lesson learned to bring back to his work with addicts in Akron. “I’m going to come back with an understanding of how devastating something like this can be throughout the community and see how people are banding together.”

He pointed to a group of teachers – out of work for weeks and most of their classroom materials lost to the storm – who set up a smoker in a parking lot, cooked sausage and asked for donations.

“It was amazing how they banded together to help the kids.”

For those in recovery, he says, “It’s OK to go to meetings and things like that, but if you’re not doing service work and you’re not giving back to the community, you’re not really part of the solution. You’re just faking it to make it.”

Before he heads back to Akron and his work with addicts here, Tugg Massa says he’s likely to go over to Florida, where Hurricane Irma is expected to cause extensive damage. He says that where he’s likely to find many more desperate people looking for work – and hope. 

M.L. Schultze is a freelance journalist. She spent 25 years at The Repository in Canton where she was managing editor for nearly a decade, then served as WKSU's news director and digital editor until her retirement.