Three women in recovery (left to right) Velma Rudge, Michelle Anderson, and Ginger Collins have spent the last year working to open the Pir2Peer Community Recovery Center. The facility opened Friday in a former car dealership at 1009 Central Street. Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Anderson

Ever since Velma Rudge added the words “recovery coach” to her Facebook page, she can’t leave her house without being stopped on the street or in the grocery store by people who want to talk.

“Most often they say, ‘Vel, I know my child is using. How do I go about getting them help?’” said Rudge, 56, of Millinocket. “I tell them I’ve got coffee and all the time in the world. I have a child with an addiction who’s been in recovery for seven months. I tell them what I’ve learned.”

Now, Rudge can also tell the people who seek her out that there’s a place where they can go for information about substance use disorder, connect with treatment and find peer support in northern Penobscot County — the Pir2Peer Recovery Community Center in Millinocket.

The center, which opened Friday, is located at 1009 Central St., in a former car dealership building that most recently housed a medical marijuana growing operation.

Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Anderson

The “Pir” part of the name stands for People in Recovery. It was the dream of Rudge and two other local women in long-term recovery who became tired of waiting for someone to do something about opioid addiction in the Katahdin region.

“I think we’re someone,” Michelle Anderson, 64, of Millinocket said of how she, Rudge and Ginger Collins, 64, of East Millinocket decided last year to take action after being trained as recovery coaches in Bangor.

The Millinocket center is modeled on the Bangor Area Recovery Network, or BARN, in Brewer, a volunteer-run community center that offers free self-help groups, programs for parents and recovery coaching.

The Millinocket center was able to open with assistance from Gordon Smith, Gov. Janet Mills’ director of opioid response. Smith helped them obtain $5,000 in state money to cover some of the initial costs of renting the 3,000-square-foot building.

Diem Lapierre, the owner of the building that once housed the former Perley Wheaton Ford dealership, lowered Pir2Peer’s rent to $1,200 a month, which includes heat and hot water. The building most recently was used as a grow site for Lapierre’s late husband’s medical marijuana business.

The Lapierres were robbed and shot during a Dec. 19, 2017, home invasion by two North Carolina men who made off with two 5-gallon buckets of marijuana, $400 to $500 in cash and the diamond rings off Diem Lapierre’s fingers. Wayne Lapierre died of bullet wounds three days later in a Bangor hospital. Diem Lapierre, 35, survived a gunshot wound to the head.

Tony Locklear 45, is serving a life sentence at the Maine State Prison for his role in the crimes. His co-defendant, Christopher Murray, 40, is awaiting sentencing at the Penobscot County Jail.

Now 23-year-old Alexis Locklear — Tony Locklear’s daughter and Murray’s ex-girlfriend — was sentenced to 375 days, the time she had already served, for driving the men to and from the home.

What happened to the Lapierres and the rising number of deaths from opioid overdoses changed how Millinocket and the surrounding towns perceived themselves, Anderson said.

“That made the drug problem real for residents who had not been touched by it,” she said. “People here aren’t as open about their drug and alcohol use as they are in larger communities like Bangor.”

The Maine attorney general’s office keeps overdose statistics by county and for a few large municipalities but not for smaller towns such as Millinocket. In 2018, the most recent year for which there are final numbers, 53 people died of overdoses in Penobscot County, with 24 of them in Bangor. Of those, 39 deaths were a result of opioid overdoses, with 18 of them reported in Bangor. In the first three quarters of 2019, 34 people died of drug overdoses in Penobscot County.

Anderson, Collins and Rudge knew one another through the small recovery community in Millinocket. It was while traveling back and forth to Bangor for training as recovery coaches that they decided to try to open a recovery community in northern Penobscot County.

“We realized that no one else was going to do this. It was us,” Collins said. “We said quite a few prayers, and we started working in my kitchen.”

Beginning last March, the trio met once a week, divvied up tasks, sought help and input from local and state leaders, and met again to report what they had learned. Connecting with Smith, who just happened to be in his office in Augusta when they called, played an essential role in opening the center, all three women said.

“Part of my role is to respond to these kinds of grassroots efforts,” Smith said. “We know there is a need in Maine’s rural communities, but we don’t yet know exactly what will work where.”

Smith said his office is reaching out to rural communities this year to assess what they need to better address the opioid crisis and to help develop regional strategies.

Organizers of the Save a Life Coalition hope the opening of the Millinocket Center will buoy their efforts to open a similar facility in Lincoln.

Gary and Mary Bies founded the nonprofit about five years ago. So far, the group’s focus has been on education, but it hopes there will be a community recovery center in Lincoln before the end of the year.

In addition to Millinocket and Brewer, community recovery centers are located in Caribou, Boothbay Harbor, Bath Bridgton, Portland, Calais, Machias and Rumford, according to Smith.