Sunset Park counseling center opens up Bay Ridge satellite

On the heels of what many are calling a growing heroin problem in the five boroughs and Brooklyn especially, Donna Mae DePola, founder of the Sunset Park Resource Training and Counseling Center (TRTC), has just opened the drug and alcohol rehabilitation site’s first satellite in Bay Ridge.

“I love what I do, and I really feel that I was put on this earth to do it,” said DePola, who opened up the not-for-profit Sunset Park center, now based at 449 39th Street, 20 years ago this month, and its Bay Ridge sister site at 408 77th Street this past July. The Bay Ridge base, like the main branch, offers rehabilitation and counseling services to those suffering from addiction.

DePola, the current president and CEO of TRTC, suffered a childhood of sexual abuse from her father, cousin and neighbor. As a result, she became dependent on drugs and alcohol, until she sought treatment at age 35.

Since overcoming her addiction, she said, she has worked hard to help drug abusers reroute their lives.

As of a September 15 Community Board 10 meeting, the center had 27 registered clients but, while the services are in high demand, DePola said, there is a stigma attached to drug abuse that prevents some families from even considering the service even though, from the outside, the Bay Ridge site – labeled just “TRTC” – looks like any other doctor’s office. On the inside, dozens of DePola’s handmade motivational posters line the walls.

“Until it hits home, it’s a problem for everybody else but us,” stressed DePola who opened the satellite center – in record time, said supporter Larry Morrish – with heavy influence from local civic and religious leaders looking to combat a rising addiction amongst local teens, “but the problem is that it is hitting home for the neighborhoods we live in.

“It’s as easy as going in for a root canal,” explained DePola of a person’s likelihood of becoming addicted to painkillers, and then heroin – currently sold on the streets for just $8 a bag and more readily available to those looking to keep the high of prescribed pain killers going long after that prescription has expired. “Before you know it, you’re buying those pain killers for $20 a pop from a friend of a friend and then somebody tells you that heroin is just as good and less than half the price.”

With both counseling centers relying heavily on fundraising, DePola called community support crucial for both sites – especially the Bay Ridge satellite, still getting on its feet – to stay afloat. Thankfully, she said, Assemblymember Felix Ortiz – a major player – recently allocated funding for a van to help transport clients from the Bay Ridge site to the Sunset Park headquarters where DePola’s 22 employees offer additional services like outpatient chemical dependency treatment and detox, programs to combat DWI and more, including training courses for local residents to become Credentialed Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselors.

“We’re doing a lot of different things here,” said the lifelong Sunset Park resident of both sites. With just under 30 clients seeking treatment at the satellite – and over 100 in Sunset Park – DePola hopes that new roster will jump to at least 50 so that the Bay Ridge base can stay in business.

“Eighty-five percent of the people who walk through our front door come here voluntarily; they want help,” stressed DePola of the Sunset Park site. The other 15 percent have been ordered to attend TRTC to seek treatment either due to a DWI or drug conviction.

“Awareness saves lives,” said Morrish, who helped found BRAVO Volunteer Ambulance with DePola in 1974 and, since the inception of the Bay Ridge site, has worked hard to help his long-time friend keep it up and running.

According to the Department of Health, 84 Brooklyn residents died of unintentional overdoses involving heroin in 2012 – 26 more than the 58 that died in 2011. According to DePola, in recent years, nine young people alone have died in Bay Ridge from opiate overdose.

“Hope starts here,” said DePola.

For more information on the center, call 718-871-7433.

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