A celebration of life for Kari Morissette of the Church of Safe Injection was held May 22 at the Eastern Prom gazebo. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

It was early 2020, and Kari Morissette was three months into her recovery. She had recently returned to her home state after more than a decade in Miami, and she was working a minimum-wage job she didn’t like. She talked at a meeting about struggling to find purpose in her new life, and when the group disbanded, Jesse Harvey approached her.

“If you want purpose, come with me,” he told her.

Harvey was the founder of the Church of Safe Injection, and Morissette quickly became a dedicated follower.

Kari Morissette Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The program he’d begun in 2018 out of the back of his Honda Fit was essentially an unlicensed mobile needle exchange. He gave out sterile syringes, condoms, naloxone and other supplies to reduce disease and fatal overdose.

Morissette started working with him in early 2020, and when Harvey died at 28 from an overdose later that year, she took on his mantle as executive director.

She led the Church of Safe Injection from legal gray area to state certification, from a car trunk to its first brick-and-mortar location in Lewiston. She also became a powerhouse advocate for people who use drugs, turning the pain she had experienced into the purpose she sought.


Morissette was just 33 years old when she died May 6. Her loss has devastated those who loved and relied on and worked with her. Dozens gathered last month to remember her on the Eastern Promenade in Portland, the same place where many of them met to mourn Harvey less than two years ago.

The afternoon was as much about celebrating Morissette – her loud and loving personality, her tireless friendship, her crop tops, her swearing, her unapologetic attitude – as it was about figuring out how to continue on without her.

“I have heard from so many people who are questioning their path and are so worried that because she couldn’t do it, in their words, what if they can’t either?” said Zoe Brokos, who worked closely with Morissette and is now the interim executive director of the Church of Safe Injection. “It’s so important that people remember that’s not what it was – everything that she helped people with and encouraged people about and loved them for is still very real, and that just because she is gone, it doesn’t mean she didn’t mean it.”

Friends decorate a sign with flowers during a celebration of life for Kari Morissette at the Eastern Prom gazebo. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer


Molly Whyte first met Morissette at the Teen Center in Portland more than a decade ago. Morissette walked right up to where Whyte was sitting alone and said, “We’re going to be friends.” And so they were.

“That’s how my extrovert best friend picked her introvert best friend,” Whyte said.


They stuck together in shelters and on couches. Whyte had a daughter and got sober, while Morissette continued to use drugs. One day, Morissette told her she was going to Miami with some people she met.

She stayed there for 12 years and became addicted to the heroin her traffickers used to control her. She did sex work and was often homeless or in jail. She contracted HIV. These are all experiences Morissette would later talk about openly, even testify about before the Maine Legislature, in an effort to help others who were struggling.

But at the time, Whyte would desperately Google her friend, looking for arrest reports or worse, a death notice. She would message Morissette’s Facebook friends and ask them to tell Morissette to call her. She would beg her to come home.

Eventually, Morissette did. She was hospitalized with her third bout of endocarditis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the lining of the heart’s valves or chambers, which can be caused by contaminated needles and syringes, when she called her sister and said she wanted to come home if she survived.

Morissette returned to Maine in 2019 and entered sober living. And she met Harvey, who preached harm reduction and acceptance.

“To meet someone else who was a risk taker, who was willing to do what needed to be done for the safety of people who were using, I don’t think she had ever heard anything like that,” said Brokos, Morissette’s colleague.


Harm reduction programs aim to reduce the risks for people who are actively using drugs instead of punishing or stigmatizing them or pushing them to stop. Syringe programs, for example, give people information and safe supplies, like clean needles to reduce the spread of disease, test strips to identify the presence of deadly fentanyl, naloxone to head off overdoses.

The city of Portland opened the state’s first needle exchange in 1998. Last year, seven certified syringe programs were operating in 17 locations across Maine, serving more than 5,200 people. Studies show these programs reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis C, and that people who connect with them are five times more likely to enter treatment.

But when Morissette met Harvey, the Church of Safe Injection was controversial because it operated outside of the rules. The state had not yet decriminalized the possession of hypodermic needles or loosened restrictions on the number of syringes that can be exchanged at certified providers, changes that have come about in the Legislature in the past two years. When Harvey started his program, police departments in Lewiston and Auburn threatened to arrest him.

Brokos was overseeing the city of Portland’s needle exchange when the Church of Safe Injection began, and she said many in her field balked at what Harvey was doing. She had been forbidden to engage professionally with him or the Church of Safe Injection because the group wasn’t certified, but she became friendly with Harvey and Morissette anyway.

“Everything Jesse always said was right in line with public health best practices,” Brokos said. “But the city of Portland didn’t see it that way.”

Brokos eventually resigned from her city job. She heard Morissette speak at Harvey’s memorial service and watched her take over the Church of Safe Injection, and she felt both in awe of and intimidated by her strength. Their paths continued to cross, and last year, Morissette asked Brokos if she would become the organization’s director of operations.


They forged a partnership, guided by Morissette’s vision and Brokos’ expertise, and they made the decision together to pursue state certification as a syringe services program. Harvey had talked to Brokos in the past about going through that process but never completed it, and she encouraged first him and then Morissette to do so to protect the people who used their services.

The Church of Safe Injection got certified in September 2021 to operate in Bethel, Dixfield, Rumford, Lewiston and Westbrook. It opened its first location in Lewiston in February.

Brokos and Whyte remembered how proud Morissette was of that space, with its tall ceilings and bright windows. She loved having a desk, felt proud of the deal she had gotten on the couch, and chose the paint colors herself. They said she sometimes doubted her ability to lead the organization, but she also took her role very seriously. She had always worked part time and had a second job as a peer support specialist, but she was excited in July to become the nonprofit’s first full-time employee. Whyte, who is the Lewiston point person, said Morissette never turned off her phone and was always ready to respond in a crisis.

“Kari loved that people knew where to find her, how to find her,” Whyte said.

Shay Dufour, right, of Portland attaches a poster to the gazebo with help from Greg Hoar of Gorham and Trish Farr of Lewiston at a celebration of life for Kari Morissette of the Church of Safe Injection at the Eastern Prom. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer


She also developed her voice as an advocate, testifying on bills related to substance use. On one such occasion, she spoke in favor of a bill that would have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs, a step advocates hoped would reduce the stigma of addiction and help people get treatment. That measure passed in the House but failed in the Senate.


Morissette told lawmakers that she had been arrested nearly two dozen times for drug possession, and she described the way she thought about herself when she was in and out of jail: “Worthless, trash, junkie, prostitute, homeless, drug addict, waste of space.” She said she was lucky to find recovery but wanted to do whatever she could to break down the stigma she once let define her.

“I work every day with people who are still actively using – and it hurts my soul to hear the harassment and barriers they face every day,” she told the committee.

Morissette was living with Whyte and her 14-year-old daughter at the time she died. Whyte said her friend had become her daughter’s second parent, and she would take Jaelynn swimming and make TikToks and watch TV with her. When bad things happened – like when Harvey died – Morissette and Whyte would get new piercings together. They had matching tattoos (Mrs. Pac-Man for Whyte and the ghost for Morissette, positioned so they would be chasing each other when the friends stood side by side).

Whyte and Brokos talked about the many things Morissette was working on: funding for new projects, an expanded office for confidential testing in Lewiston, plans for four additional locations, a new support group for survivors of trafficking.

The Church of Safe Injection hasn’t officially disclosed how Morissette died. Her colleagues and friends said they want to focus on supporting people grieving now and in the future.

“She carried a lot, and I want to make sure that moving forward, our organization supports each other in a way that is hopefully sustainable,” Brokos said. “We’ve experienced a lot of loss, and we need to be incredibly gentle with ourselves, maybe forever. If we need to take days off for grief support, if we need to incorporate mental health services into our organization for our staff and our volunteers, … I really want to do that.”


After Morissette died, the Church of Safe Injection received news she had been waiting for. The nonprofit – along with Amistad, Maine Access Points and MaineHealth – had been awarded a major grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The organizations will receive $1.2 million over three years to increase the number of peer support specialists doing harm reduction in rural areas and to train medical professionals in that work. Project DHARMA is named for a Hindu concept of fulfilling duty through service to others.

Dr. Kinna Thakarar said Morissette worked on that grant and was supposed to be one of those hired with the money. Thakarar, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and an infectious disease and addiction medicine specialist at MaineHealth, said Morissette gave talks about harm reduction and her experiences to trainees and faculty at Maine Medical Center, and that she was a favorite speaker there. The two wrote a magazine article together about the need for Maine to bring its syringe service providers into compliance with federal best practices by eliminating a cap on the number of needles a person could receive at one time.

“She really taught me the importance of listening to people who have lived experience and involving them in advocacy, teaching, research, whatever arena,” Thakarar said.

Thakarar said advocates like Morissette are part of the reason why harm reduction has become more accepted in recent years.

“Kari did the work, regardless of whether it was accepted or not,” said Thakarar.

Ana Lagunez embraces Jess Falero, both of Portland, during a celebration of life for Kari Morissette at the Eastern Prom gazebo. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer



It was supposed to rain on the day of the celebration of Morissette’s life, but the forecasted thunderstorm never came. More than 100 people gathered on the grass in Portland’s Fort Allen Park, with balloon animals and hugs in the crowd. A half dozen organizations beloved by Morissette set up tables with bubbles and water bottles and resources.

The Church of Safe Injection suggested people wear bright colors, and some came decked out in rainbow flags. Guests added flowers to a memorial and wrote notes to Morissette. “You taught us to love unconditionally. We will do so with pride,” one message said. “You taught me how to use Narcan and how to rock a crop top with confidence,” read another. “You forever changed my life,” said a third.

Speakers took the microphone to share favorite memories of Morissette. They called for those gathered to look out for one another. One suggested each person leave with the phone number of someone in the crowd they did not know.

“This is a hard day,” said the Rev. Dr. Jodi Hayashida, board president of the Church of Safe Injection and minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Auburn. “It’s a hard day in what may feel to many of us like a hard day in an endless string of hard days, days of loss and grief and holy rage, days of saying goodbye to another beloved one, and another, and another. I want you to know that there is room for all of it today.

“There’s room for our grief, for the particular grief of losing Kari and the wider grief of having to say goodbye over and over. There’s room for our anger that we lost Kari too soon, and that Kari’s death did not take place in a vacuum. She died fighting against some of the very realities that killed her, a larger society that still refuses to connect trauma and health care to substance use. There’s room for our confusion here today that Kari, who fought so hard to save lives, who carried so deeply in her bones the truth that every life was sacred, would end her own life and leave us behind. Whatever we are feeling here today, whatever we are holding, there is room for it all.”

Later, people in the crowd took fistfuls of flower petals from a bucket and walked down to East End Beach. They chanted on the way: “Who are we here for?” “Kari!” “Who do we love?” “Kari!” They tossed their petals into the ocean, and soon the waves were dotted with pink and red and yellow. Even when the crowd dispersed, the petals floated gently.


“Kari knew how to love, was gifted in the practice of loving,” Hayashida said. “Not the superficial form of love that skims across the surface of what it means to be human, but the wild and fierce practice of loving that means Kari looked inside each of us and saw the spark of the sacred that we carry, and she celebrated it. She made us feel it inside of ourselves.”

Community organizer Jess Falero remembered meeting Morissette at the homeless encampment at Portland City Hall in 2020 and immediately wanting to be her friend. Falero said Morissette later helped them escape from domestic violence and offered them a position at the Church of Safe Injection as the co-coordinator of LGBTQ services.

“The work continues even though Kari’s not here,” Falero said. “What that looks like is up to us to figure out. There really isn’t room in that to feel despair because people’s lives are at stake, and people will die if the Church of Safe Injection closes. We know that Kari’s passing was because she was so exhausted to live in these systems and having to fight against them, so the work will continue.”

At the celebration, Falero said Morissette had given everyone gathered an example of how to support one another.

“If you came to Kari and said, ‘Friend, I am tired, I am low, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ she’d pick up the phone and say, ‘Bitch, I need you. I need you here. You matter to me,'” Falero said, to laughs and cheers from the crowd.

Morissette had said those words to Falero just weeks before she died, when Falero attempted to take their own life. Falero spread the message.

“For everyone here today: Bitch, I need you,” Falero said. “You matter to me. Your life is worth something.”

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