Businesses funding drug fight, prevention

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series about battling Pennsylvania’s opioids crisis.

If asked why he started a Blair County nonprofit to tackle a surge of heroin and the accompanying violence, Altoona businessman Michael Fiore has a simple answer.

“You can either put your head in the sand and ignore it or pull your head out and do something about it,” said Fiore, CEO and president of the family contracting company, Leonard S. Fiore Inc.

“I got sick and tired of seeing on the front page of the newspaper gun violence and shootings and the overdoses,” said Fiore, who in 2006 rallied local businesses and individuals to fund and create the nonprofit organization Operation Our Town by getting two dozen businesses to contribute $10,000 per year for three years.

Fiore said he remembered Altoona as a far different place than it had become by the mid-2000s, when effects of heroin use escalated.

Overdoses, daytime shootings and appearances of gang members running organized drug operations threatened the quality of life in this once safe, working class city in central Pennsylvania.

Operation Our Town, initially, was a way to give local police more resources to go after drug dealers and make the job safer for officers.

It started when Fiore told Altoona police to buy eight armored vests and send him the bill.

Between 2007-17, the organization provided $3,084,865 in grants for law enforcement, treatment and prevention programs in Blair County in keeping with its three-prong strategy in addressing the drug problem, which is largely heroin and other opioids.

Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio has often praised Operation Our Town, and Altoona police Sgt. Chris Moser said funding from the organization has allowed the department to expand its drug investigations, both in numbers and scale.

It also funds a full-time drug prosecutor through a grant to Blair County.

“Operation Our Town has played a large role in cleaning up what is going on here,” said Moser, who pointed out the funding goes to pay for police overtime, training and equipment.

Moser said if one wants to see the difference Operation Our Town has made they only need to look to nearby Johnstown in Cambria County, where in 2017 there were eight homicides, all shootings. In 2017, Altoona had no homicides.

The organization also sees treatment and prevention as part of the equation.

Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation Executive Director Toni Bilik noted the grants from Operation Our Town made it possible to expand the existing after-school program from just one location to three.

The grants go to physical expenses — school supplies, sports equipment, field trips — for the after-school program, serving about 120 kids each year.

Professional staff helps the kids with homework, gives them a snack and does activities to expand their world, build character and teach them life skills.

“Along with that, we talk about risky behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse — even smoking,” Bilik said. “The kids are well-versed about what that can do to their life.”

Kids who were in trouble or headed for trouble, she said, have come back to tell her the after-school program changed their lives.

Fiore said he believes the approach being taken in Altoona is not just unique in the state, but also unique in the country.


News outlets collaborate to share solutions to opioid crisis

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — More than 50 print, digital and broadcast news organizations are casting a spotlight on the diverse and sometimes out-of the-ordinary tactics being used to combat the devastating effects of the opioids crisis across Pennsylvania, from the smallest towns to the biggest cities.

One goal of the media collaboration, “State of Emergency: Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania’s Opioids Crisis,” was to make sure communities in every part of the state are aware of strategies, innovations and community efforts that are helping to alleviate the crisis, or at least show promise.

The Pennsylvania Associated Press Media Editors and the Pennsylvania Society of News Editors put out a call to newsrooms in April to document potential solutions and share their stories with all the participants in the project.

In 2016, more than 2,200 Pennsylvanians died of opioid overdoses, the fourth-highest rate in the U.S., according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Mirror will publish parts of the series in the coming days.