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Next Step: Why These Knoxville Sisters 'Don't Give Up' on Drug Users

KNOXVILLE — When Addie Arbach pulls her car up to South Knoxville’s Sam Duff Memorial Park and starts unloading food and clothing and Narcan, she knows not everybody in town is happy she’s there.

Then again, they’re not necessarily welcoming the people she’s going to help, either —homeless people, many of them drug addicts.

Arbach and her sister, Rebecca Parr, will make sure they’re not hungry and that they have what they need. That includes hugs, affirmations, unconditional love.

And, when they’re ready, she’ll get them to the next step: rehab.

Arbach and Parr founded their grassroots Next Step Initiative in 2017, a response to a need that became obvious to Parr when she ran for the 1st District City Council seat that year. Parr, an artist who describes herself as a bit of a “hippie,” lost the seat to Stephanie Welch but gained a strong desire to bring art and mindfulness opportunities to people who normally wouldn’t get to experience that.

She partnered with Arbach, who was interested in providing more practical elements — food and resources — to the same population. Together, they’d go into Western Heights and Montgomery Village housing developments, or under the I-640 underpass where homeless people gather, with a trunk full of spaghetti, sauce and bread, poems and rocks to paint. On Facebook, they’d broadcast where they were going to be on a particular day.

“When you come for your food and your shoes and your clothes and things that I’ll have with me ... I also want to you to do this art stuff and get touch with yourself,” said Parr, who also comes up with affirmations of worth. “We’re all about connection.”

The sisters have the background to make that connection. They talk of growing up in a bikers’ clubhouse with a “beautiful, loving, charismatic” father who was a biker and ultimately died in prison from drug-related complications. Arbach, who worked in restaurant management, battled her own addiction to methamphetamine, and she’s been sober now since 1989. But she has a son who died of a drug-related infection in 2015 and three children in jail, and she’s raising grandchildren.

Now, Arbach said, she’s fearless. She’ll walk into a trap house on a crime-ridden street with sandwiches and zipper bags of Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray that can reverse the effects of opioid overdose. The sisters have given naloxone training to hundreds of people. They’ll drive people to the local needle exchange. They’ll sit with them as they go through painful withdrawals.

“We’re a bridge they can’t burn,” Arbach said.

And when someone’s ready to get help, the sisters are relentless, spending hours on the phone working the contacts they’ve made to get people with no money into rehab – right away, before they change their minds and get high again.

To date, the sisters have sent just shy of 200 people to rehab.

“I carry more of their cards than I do of my own,” said Knoxville Police Department Officer Thomas Clinton, who specifically works with homeless people.

'We don't give up'

Just finding a place to send people is hard enough – and most times, even if they go, it takes more than once.

Take 23-year-old Adrian Ross. Ross said he began using drugs when he was 13. He graduated from Helen Ross McNabb Center’s Centerpointe program and was living sober in a halfway house in Middle Tennessee with a good job making car parts when he decided to return to Knoxville at Christmas to see his toddler son.

He soon found himself back with old friends, heroin and meth pressed into his hands.

“I said no the first few times,” Ross said, but the pull became too strong: “They’d just hand it to me and say, ‘This one’s on me.’”

By the time Ross ran into Parr while he was out walking in South Knoxville in January, he’d lost his housing and job and was living in a tent, shooting up daily. The sisters arranged for him to get treatment through a grant at Buffalo Valley in Middle Tennessee, which sends a van to Knoxville for pickup twice a week. But Ross missed the van.

The sisters decided a road trip was in order – but at a rest stop, Ross fled.

“I just panicked,” he said. “I was afraid. I really don’t know why.”

But by March, he was ready. He’s now completing a faith-based rehab program in another state, Parr said.

“It’s hard,” Parr said. “This repetitive, falling back into addiction doesn’t mean to give up. It just means it’s an issue, and how do we work around it? Well, you just keep coming and keep coming and keep coming. We don’t give up.”

In the beginning, it was just the sisters and the people they served. But Parr’s longtime involvement in the arts community, her work helping empower Montgomery Village residents, and her experience running for political office let her know the importance of bringing others to the table.

Borderland Tees donated Next Step’s trademark purple shirts. Metro Drug Coalition provides Narcan kits through the state department of health.

In March 2018, Next Step, which operates on donations, became a 501(c)3 nonprofit under Community Shares. Arbach went through peer recovery specialist training. Parr got Knox County Health Department to send outreach specialists to their events to educate people using drugs on hepatitis prevention and treatment.

In May, the sisters organized the Block Party Under the Bridge, where they set up under the I-640 underpass and partnered with several organizations to offer food, resources and entertainment. Local musicians and dancers performed.

Their second block party will be Saturday 1-3 p.m. at Sam Duff Park in South Knoxville, an area that’s attracted a lot of homeless people who lived under the bridge downtown before the city converted that space to a daytime-only park. That’s where the sisters have lately focused their efforts — sometimes to the consternation of the surrounding community, which they’d like to involve.

An Easter party at Sam Duff was well attended. The larger block party will have food, donated clothing and shoes, entertainment, art opportunities, HIV and hepatitis C testing, Narcan training, wound care, voter registration and information on child care, rehab, housing services and other resources — and unlimited hugs.

“We’re not just feeding people, we’re lining them up with services,” Parr said. “Our motto is ‘Come as you are.’ .. We keep them alive until they decide they’re worth (getting clean).”

Arbach has formed “Addie’s Angels,” a group of people — many of them homeless and/or using drugs — looking for ways to volunteer in the area, including cleaning up the park.

The sisters know meeting at Sam Duff Park — and operating out of their cars — isn’t sustainable: for them, or the neighborhood. They’d like to have a bricks-and-mortar location, but their budget so far is only their own income and individual donations. In August, though, Next Step will have an AmeriCorps volunteer who will help them track and organize their data and apply for grants.“We track it, but badly,” Parr said. “We’re too busy doing.”The sisters have a wish list. At the top is a van. Also, a chest freezer, so they can freeze bulk meals, and a washer-dryer set, so they can do laundry for their people. (Laundry Love donates detergent and clean socks, and Parr had been doing the laundry in her home until her dryer broke recently.) But, Parr said, they use all donations: food, clothing, shoes, hygiene products, money. They’re also planning a fall Block Party for East Knoxville.Amid the successes, there’s always loss. There are multiple relapses. There are days Next Step loses clients, to overdose or drug-related medical issues, when Arbach wonders if she can go on. But she does.“Somebody asked me, how do you deal with so much sadness?” Arbach said. “I said, ‘Well, at the end of the day, when I lay my head down, somebody got loved who might not have that day.”And, often enough, there’s that payoff. Two babies whose mothers the sisters helped get clean during pregnancy. Facebook messages telling them, “You saved my life.”“I tell them, ‘I just guided you,’” Arbach said. “‘You saved your own life — and I’m so proud of you.’”

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