Backed by federal grant funding, the Monadnock Rural Community Opioid Response Program Planning Project got going in earnest Thursday afternoon with brainstorming and agenda setting.

The goal, which organizers embraced as ambitious, is to “reduce the mortality and morbidity” of substance use by uniting community members from diverse backgrounds, and ultimately finding a way to close gaps between existing efforts to combat the drug crisis.

A sense of urgency was palpable in the room, at the heart of a county that saw a near doubling, to 32, of fatal overdoses last year despite a dip statewide.

“I’m just going to be authentic for a minute and say that I’ve gotten a lot of feedback already about, like, how long are we going to spend planning?” Jocelyn Goldblatt, the Keene Serenity Center’s executive director, said at the outset. “... I’m really hoping that we can come together to witness the last round of planning.”

Forty people from the recovery community and beyond turned out to the second floor of the county building on Court Street in Keene for the two-hour session, according to the program’s project manager, Beth M. Shrader.

Attendees were split into small groups and bounced ideas off each other about unique challenges to recovery in the Monadnock Region, and the best way to get more people involved in the effort.

Cheshire County is one of 120 recipients of the Rural Opioid Response Grant, with a $200,000 budget for a project that also includes Antrim, Bennington, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough and five other towns in western Hillsborough County.

Reports will be submitted on the program’s activity, with a written report due in May 2020.

One of the key factors the federal government will look at, according to Phil Wyzik, CEO of Monadnock Family Services, is the attendance count at each event.

“If we started with 40, and end up with 20 [at the next event], that looks bad,” Wyzik said during his concluding remarks, “... because it will demonstrate to the feds that we [didn’t] deliver what we said.”

Thursday’s session was a who’s who of the Monadnock Region’s most engaged recovery advocates, from peer coaches to medical professionals.

Goldblatt estimated that about 70 percent of the group was composed of people she recognized from other events focused on combating the opioid epidemic.

Candace St. John, a population health epidemiologist at Cheshire Medical Center, engaged the crowd by weaving between statistical analyses and more philosophical approaches to addressing addiction.

St. John presented on the Community Health Improvement Leadership Academy, or CHILA, a program designed to come up with community solutions to the crisis and find a sustainable model that will outlast the federal funds.

Nelson Hayden, director of The Doorway at Cheshire Medical Center — an addiction services referral hub that opened earlier this year on Marlboro Road — took responses from the group on basic ground rules for sessions going forward. This includes an agreement on keeping participation and contributions — such as personal experience with addiction and recovery — confidential, while encouraging general information about the sessions to be public.

Representatives from the Southwest Region Planning Commission also took feedback on how to conduct focus groups to get as much public opinion folded into the process as possible. Henry Underwood, a GIS mapping specialist and planner with the commission, said that staff will be looking to talk with businesses, towns and recovery communities about important questions, such as why there is such a high demand for alcohol and other substances in the first place.

Geographic challenges was a particular issue people discussed, sharing their ideas after breaking into smaller groups to brainstorm.

Those in recovery and service providers alike repeated concerns about access to transportation and treatment, a lack of extracurricular activities for children and non-alcohol related gatherings for adults, as well as disparities in resources between communities.

Jake White, a recovery coach at the Keene Serenity Center, said he came away from the first session with a positive impression. He delved into how to attract a broader demographic to the program going forward in a conversation with Shrader as people filed out.

One idea White floated is making his own list of questions and priorities from his peer support sessions by asking those he coaches what they think are the biggest barriers to the recovery process.

Shrader reiterated a point from her earlier remarks: the need to move away from jargon and toward people who would not normally be in the loop on the latest approaches to the opioid epidemic.

“You go to where people are,” she said. “You don’t ask them to come to you.”

“Go where people don’t know anything!” White chimed in.

By the end of the meeting, Shrader had already made an agreement with City Councilor and mayoral candidate Mitchell H. Greenwald to come to the City Council for a discussion on the program and city leaders’ role in addressing the crisis.

“We need to expose the City Council to this, kind of web off of that, to bring in more and more people that are not in the trenches so much,” noted Greenwald, who said he was the only councilor in attendance. “We hear all the time, ‘Oh, let’s do something. Let’s do something.’ Well, what are we going to do? These are the professionals.

“... I might have ideas, but I am not the professional. My job is to grab [an expert], squeeze the information out of him, and hopefully come up with a plan to move forward with.”

In his closing remarks, Wyzik stressed the importance of going beyond brainstorming — and avoiding, as Goldblatt would put it, “being an echo chamber.”

“It’s not about making the plan, in my opinion,” Wyzik said. “... It’s about saving people’s lives.”

Those seeking recovery resources in Cheshire County can visit the The Doorway at 640 Marlboro Road in Keene (the Curran Building on Route 101) Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or seek support through the state’s 24/7 hotline by calling 211.

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.