CNCounty News

Provider sidesteps rural mistrust in government, delivers services

Jessica Perusse, director of Camden Life Center, discusses how the center helps rural residents. Photo by Megan Siwek

Key Takeaways

Oneida County, N.Y. is helping its rural residents by partnering with an organization to help bring services to Camden, located about an hour from the county seat of Utica.

The organization, called Camden Life Center, is helping bring county services to residents grappling with limited access to essential services, with no transit and sporadic connectivity. 

“When our [government] came out here, it was because Child Protective Services was involved, or probation or parole are involved, so there was this really negative relationship between community members and [government] services,” said social worker Jessica Perusse, who is also the founder and director of Camden Life Center.

“The only thing they do is take away my kids are tell me what to do,’” summed up the local attitude toward government, she noted. 

So when the county looked to offer more resources and attention to Camden, Perusse’s organization offered service delivery from a local provider that already had credibility with local residents.  

Oneida County has been able to leverage the Camden Life Center as a trusting western Oneida hub where residents experience a “warm hand off” to county services.  

Perusse was a fellow in NACo’s Reaching Rural Initiative, a yearlong initiative bringing together rural practitioners to advance solutions to address the challenges of substance use in their communities. Last month, she shared her successes with her peers. 

Those successes included bringing together local council advisory members and partner agencies, including Oneida County and Syracuse University, to conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. Oneida County agencies, such as Oneida County Department of Mental Health, joined in this process, acknowledging the gap of services available to western Oneida residents. 

Together, they aim to increase local access to services, address stigma and offer prevention efforts by funneling essential county-managed resources, such as temporary assistance programs such as SNAP (supplement nutrition assistance program), Medicaid, Emergency Aid and Home Energy Assistance Program, through the Camden Life Center.   

 Recognizing its geographical limitations and Camden residents’ mistrust in government services, Oneida County models how community-based partners like the Camden Life Center can serve as a valuable tool for facilitating services and building trust.    

Over the past two years, Perusse established an advisory board, consisting of community members with lived experiences or close ties to those struggling with addiction, which has been instrumental in building trust in their services.  

“Before 2019, there were zero behavioral health appointments in our community, and right now, we’re estimating about 350 appointments per month mental health and addiction treatment appointments occur,” she said.   

 The Camden Life Center also prioritizes street outreach and participating in various events to establish themselves as a regular presence in the community. Thus, Camden Life Center was a natural partner for the Camden Street Engagement Team as part of Oneida County’s Opioid Task Force, coordinating outreach and intervention strategies to help reduce overdoses.   

 There are plans afoot to expand the Camden Life Center, Perusse said. She envisions a multi-use community café to host recovery network meetings, serve as a retail coffee shop and feature a teaching kitchen. She aims to expand programs specializing in social services, peer support, case management, mental health and addiction treatment, nutrition, vocational and financial resources.   

 Plans for the new community café call for a lead chef to maintain health standards and partner on teaching and staff education and a lead recovery peer to facilitate recovery network meetings, outreach and provide a supportive environment. 

The goal is to provide job skills for individuals entering or reentering the workforce with substance use disorder. A recent promising addition to the Camden Life Center team is an intensive case manager piloting a program in five town courts within the jurisdiction, offering education, information, intact assessments, and direct connections to treatment services.  

“In 2024, our goal is to move a little bit further and push a little bit further to engage in county services and bringing them out here,” Perusse said. “They have been very good at connecting us with other agency partners that might be of assistance in our community.” 

Tagged In:

Related News

Pima County, Ariz. Supervisor Rex Scott (left). Photo by Hector Emanuel
County News

Pima County, Ariz. invests in preschool for 1,600 kids

The Pima Early Education Program Scholarships program offers free school district preschool classes, Quality First scholarships and extended-day Head Start programming for low-income and middle-class residents in the county.

cook county asylum
County News

Cook County creates health and social services center for asylum-seekers

Cook County opened and expanded the Refugee Health Center to meet the needs of an influx of asylum-seekers. 

HHS Sec. Xavier Becerra makes a point Sunday while speaking to members of NACo’s Large Urban County Caucus at the NACo Legislative Conference. Photo by Denny Henry
County News

Intergovernmental partnerships offer strategy for mental health crisis

"Drug use is a disease, and stigma isn’t going to get rid of it."