Intern Spotlight: Ellie Huizenga

by Helena Huizenga // Published June 25, 2014

angelA core value growing up was to listen, respond, and try to empathize with others, regardless of  their circumstance. My parents espoused this principle with the actions they took in everyday life. 

One experience that crystallized this tenet was when my father jumped out of the family car at a stoplight in downtown Atlanta on our way home from a pizza dinner. His sudden exit from the vehicle confounded me, but I slowly realized his aim. Running over to a group of homeless people, my father handed over our leftover pizza. He shook hands with the men and turned to rejoin the family. When he got back in the car, I asked my father why he had stopped. His reply has stuck with me throughout my life: “It’s important to give people, who others walk right by, the chance to tell you their story.”

That evening was catalytic for me because it set me on a path to public service. I have volunteered with numerous service organizations and non-profits since attending Oberlin College. Just like my father, the most rewarding part of this work has been listening to the stories of the people I serve. What’s difficult for me is that sometimes these stories are heartbreaking; and often the people who can make the largest immediate impact are an unlikely audience. This was certainly the case when I worked for the Free Clinic of Cleveland, as part of Oberlin’s service programming. 

One of the clinic’s leading programs is Project Dawn, a community based overdose education and treatment program. In this role, I educated registered drug users about overdose risk factors and what to do in the presence of an overdose. As part of this process, I learned about medicines like Naloxone. Naloxone is a pure opioid antagonist, which is a fancy way of saying it counters overdoses caused by drugs like heroin and morphine. If a user overdoses, the drug can be administered through injection, which takes effect within two to three minutes. Easy enough. One might assume such lifesaving medicine would be made available to at risk populations. After all, the FDA put it on the fast track to being approved in 2013 in hopes of curbing the more than 16,000 yearly opioid overdose deaths. This isn’t the case in Ohio, as state laws make it illegal for Project Dawn to give Naloxone to the families and friends of drug users.

Fighting addiction and stigma will always be an uphill battle, but this problem was particularly shocking to me. For months, I felt the hurt and fear as I had to tell parents that I could not give them the tool to save their child’s life. I remember a mother coming to the clinic asking how to get Naloxone. She had a son who was my age and addicted to opium, as a result of painkillers he had been prescribed after an operation when he was younger. She knew she would be powerless if her son were to overdose. After hearing this mother’s story I also felt powerless because state law precluded my ability to help her. It was outrageous that they created a barrier, hindering parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends from saving the lives of their loved ones. Without anyone to speak on their behalf, the struggle of these caretakers was amplified by a lack of awareness or action on the part of their government. This entire group of both users and their loved ones faced the dangers of inadequate care. Their story wasn’t being heard, and I knew this was something I needed to change.

House Bill 170 was my chance to do something about this problem. Project Dawn supported BH 170 because it would allow Naloxone to be distributed to families and friends of drug users. As I worked to advance such legislation, it became evident that government leaders were not familiar with the need for Naloxone or the issues that arise from that need. For many people that I had built relationships with, Naloxone was a desperate, urgent need, but those in power treated the situation with a lack of urgency that I found incredibly disheartening. Telling these stories and persuading legislators to act was an uphill battle for all of us at Project Dawn. Fortunately, after months of fighting for this legislation, Governor John Kasich signed the bill in March of 2014. The process made me realize that representatives have few incentives to reach out to underrepresented communities. This needs to change if we want foster healthy, vibrant communities. 

Advocating HB 170 opened my eyes to the fact that elected officials too often miss important stories. My experience at Project Dawn introduced me to an extremely underserved population, whose lack of political representation resulted in a staggering number of overdose deaths. Although HB 170 was passed, minority groups are still unrepresented in government. By working at FairVote, I am getting at root of this problem with reforms like ranked choice voting and fair representation elections. I hope to work toward a democracy where minority and underserved communities can have their stories listened and responded to by local and national offices.