Kara Nelson and Juneau Police Chief shaking handsKara Nelson is the Juneau Police Department’s December 2016, Reentry Hero and wraps up our Reentry Hero series. Nelson has not only overcome her own addiction and family wreckage that came with it but has now dedicated her life to lifting up people in addiction and supporting them in finding long-term recovery. It’s not an easy calling. Over the last few weeks, Nelson has been working to get five different Juneau residents, who are addicted to substances, into treatment. It wasn’t going well. Suddenly, four of them were able to get into treatment in and outside of Juneau. There was no logical reason for that to have happened and Nelson credits divine intervention more than her relentless pursuit of treatment openings.


Even with recent positive developments for several people, treatment still eludes one of the five people looking for help. That is very bad news. Nelson knows that people wanting to quit drugs need support and treatment within that addict’s window of commitment so Nelson is always racing the clock. Often resources are not available and the person returns to using.


One incarcerated woman asked Nelson for help because she wanted to go from prison to treatment. The woman knew she couldn’t return to the streets and resist drugs. She was coming out of prison without even being on probation to help hold her accountable. She knew the pull to use was going to be very strong.


Nelson raised the money to get her an assessment in jail, met the woman when she was released, but still lost her to the streets and drugs before a treatment opening could be found. Nelson is an emergency responder who works day and night without compensation even on Christmas, especially on Christmas as it turns out, trying to help people with addictions. Like a lot of emergency responders, Nelson is tormented most by those she can’t help and wants to recruit more people like her to combat addiction.


Nelson has spent the last three years pursuing grants and partnerships so that Juneau can have more people like herself, people who have experienced addiction and incarceration, to coach people wanting to recover. Nelson is encouraged by how in the last couple of years she has seen an increasing number of people willing to see former prisoners as people rather than individuals that are anywhere from disposable to frightening. When she first started lobbying for access to drugs that can counteract an overdose, people would say that those people overdosing should be allowed to die as a consequence of making bad decisions. Nelson knew the lives being disregarded so casually included her former self, as she had overdosed several times and just happened to survive.


Nelson spent many years of her life knowing society viewed her as worthless. She echoed that assessment of herself endlessly in her own mind as she sat in jail, watching other men and women do the same. The natural temptation was to put up a wall and to be angry and resentful, withdrawing from society in a mutual rejection. Nelson, eventually, made the decision to accept all that negativity and rely on her faith to give her the strength to prove herself and to then use that earned respect to advocate for others.


Nelson has found allies for her mission she originally did not expect. Nelson credits the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) with having probation officers, administrators, and corrections officers, especially in Juneau and at the state level, who are genuine and concrete in their efforts to support former prisoners in being successful on the outside. It’s the lack of resources for support and treatment that Nelson sees as being the largest barrier to her and DOC’s efforts. Right now everyone is doing the best they can with what is available, the equivalent of using floating driftwood to shore up drowning people rather than the needed life-rings, but at least it is something. Nelson is hopeful more resources will become available and that people in Juneau will continue on the path of humanizing people who have suffered from addiction and been incarcerated.


During 2016, Nelson’s schedule involved meeting with the United States Surgeon General prior to the release of his landmark report,  the first-ever national report, about alcohol, drugs, and health. She got to see much of what she was thinking written down and legitimized by people at the very top of the government in that report. It was a time she will never forget and that also illustrates how far she has come from being a homeless addict on the streets of Ketchikan.


Nelson mentioned kindness in her interview at JPD this week, which seemed timely with the kickoff of the Year of Kindness (17YOK), a community effort spearheaded by JPD. While the barriers to helping Nelson’s clients are substantial, she wants the average citizen to know that just offering a moment of kindness to someone suffering with addiction can create an impression that sticks with them, even generating a little hope in that person. Nelson remembers that during her darkest days, sometimes she would be in public and instead of looking away from her contemptuously, a person actually looked at her like they saw a person, not a problem.


Sometimes that person would say ‘Hello’ to her and wish her a good day. Nelson says the hate can just bounce off a person who already hates themselves, but being acknowledged and treated kindly, cuts right through the armor.