Kari Morissette, right, executive director of The Church of Safe Injection, shares a tender moment Tuesday with Catherine Nash after Nash spoke about her son, Jesse Harvey, during a ceremony to open the facility at 195 Main St. in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — A program aimed to curb the spread of diseases contracted from shared needles and paraphernalia kicked off Tuesday afternoon on Main Street.

Wristbands fill a counter Tuesday at The Church of Safe Injection at 195 Main St. in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Members of The Church of Safe Injection welcomed the public alongside Catherine Nash, the mother of Jesse Harvey, the organization’s founder who died of a drug overdose in 2020.

“Jesse was the most loving, most compassionate person on the planet. His goodness just shone through everywhere and everything he did with every person he touched,” Nash said.

Founded in 2018, the church’s mission is to fight for the “health, rights and dignity of people who use drugs,” according to statement on its Facebook page. The new space at 195 Main St. is the first brick-and-mortar exchange location for needles and other paraphernalia. The exchange program was started by Harvey, who would distribute clean needles, pipes and Narcan to users in the Lewiston and Portland area.

According to a May report released by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and the University of Maine, there were 3,222 reported fatal and nonfatal drug overdoses in Maine between January and May 2021, with 247 resulting in death. The state reported 504 drug overdose deaths in 2020.

During 2021, there were 304 overdose calls for service and 11 more involved multiple victims, resulting in 315 calls; 31 of which resulted in death, according to a study by a Tri-County Mental Health program. Narcan was administered to 214 overdose patients, including by police 129 of those times.

Zoe Brokos, left, from The Church of Safe Injection, and Kari Morissette, center, executive director of the new facility on Main Street in Lewiston, talk Tuesday afternoon with Catherine Nash, mother of church founder Jesse Harvey, at the  opening ceremony. Videographers from television stations record the event. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“We distribute safe supplies in hopes of stopping people from reusing and sharing supplies so that we can lower endocarditis rates, HIV and hepatitis C, and we distribute naloxone in hopes of lowering overdose rates,” said Kari Morissette, executive director of the church.

An assortment of paraphernalia sits on the counter Tuesday afternoon at The Church of Safe Injection in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Zoe Brokos, director of operations since 2020, was a close friend of Harvey and ran the needle exchange program in Portland for 10 years. “We’ve really felt the community come together. This space has been made possible by the community,” Brokos said.

“Jesse created the church out of (a) strong desire to create a religious organization in which using drugs was part of the religious belief because the goal was, ‘How do we protect these people?'” Brokos said. “Unfortunately when he passed away, his incredible mind and ideas went with him, so Kari and I focus on running harm-reduction services across the state and rural communities who don’t always have the access that they need.”

Clean supplies made available to users have been proven to lower rates of infection contracted through shared use or unsanitary conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The church’s program will run four times week: Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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