GLOUCESTER — Steve Lesnikoski was living out of his car and couch-surfing in California in 2015 when he stumbled upon a post on an online forum for opioid addicts.
A woman had posted about the Gloucester Police Department’s Angel Program, which encourages addicts to turn their drugs in to police without fear of arrest. A volunteer “angel” then helps place them in treatment.
She offered help to anyone interested. Within 12 hours, Lesnikoski was aboard a plane, headed cross-country with a ticket paid for by a stranger.
It was time to end his long addiction to heroin. He was the first participant to complete the program.
Now sober for more than two years, Lesnikoski has marked another first: He’s working as a care advocate/outreach coordinator for the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, better known as “PAARI.”
“Steve’s journey . . . has really brought him full circle,” John Rosenthal, cofounder of PAARI, said in a statement announcing Lesnikoski’s hiring in September. “We’re pleased to have him working full time.”
PAARI, which grew out of the Angel Program, works with more than 100 police departments across the country to set up similar treatment efforts. The job — funded with a grant from the nonprofit Evelyn Lilly Lutz Foundation of Beverly — brings him in close contact with people in the throes of addiction.
“We don’t force anything on anyone,” Lesnikoski, 32, said, while seated in his office on Main Street across from the police station. “We tell them if they’re looking to change, here is how to do it. If not, here is my number.”
In just over two months, he’s met with eight people. He brings to the job both the intimate knowledge of addiction and knowledge of emergency treatment measures, such as Narcan, a drug used to reverse overdoses.
“We do many things — set people up with shelters and treatment centers, refer people to counselors and other social workers,” said Lesnikoski, who is studying for a degree in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. “But sometimes, a lot of the time, we just talk.”
He can empathize more than most. He was introduced to opioids in high school, when he was prescribed painkillers for a sports injury. He spent many years in California and Arizona battling heroin addiction. He worked as a software engineer, and a construction worker, and other jobs. He struggled to get clean.
People struggling with addiction “often have nowhere to turn to . . . nowhere to go,” he said.
“I’ve worked many jobs before . . . But here I’ve found something fulfilling, helping people with my own knowledge, my own story.”