Operation Angel program participant Rebecca Thomas sweeps through a room at Lynhaven Retreat, where she's spending a year working through her drug addiction. Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office has partnered with New Orleans mission to get drug abusers into rehabilitation facilities rather than put them in jail.

 It’s been a long time since Rebecca Thomas called someplace home.

The soft-spoken, kind-eyed woman spent years bouncing around St. Tammany and Washington parishes, hurtling through a relationship she calls “hate-fired and drug-fueled” until the day she realized something worse was to come.

Still in the grips of a drug addiction that over time had morphed and shifted through methamphetamine, heroin and pill use, Thomas packed a bag and called the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office — the only place she could think of to get help.

Knowing they would probably arrest her but facing only single-night refuge at shelters and days on the street otherwise, she took the chance and it paid off in a big way.

Months later, Thomas now stays at a wooded, serene property tucked along a back highway in Hammond. She’s one of 21 women scattered around Lynhaven Retreat on a recent weekday, completing chores like clearing out ponds, mopping floors and laundry to keep her promise to Operation Angel.

The partnership between local sheriff’s offices and retreats like Lynhaven, called Operation Angel, allows drug users in the midst of their addiction a place to seek help without the fear of arrest or exorbitant fees at a traditional rehab.

Originally founded by a police department in Massachusetts, the idea reached the north shore three years ago and was taken up by the New Orleans Mission where it has since expanded. The Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office came on board in February, and since then has transported 37 men and women to facilities in the area to start treatment.

“They surrender whatever they have on them or their home and can come into a law enforcement agency and meet with an officer and have all this paraphernalia and not get arrested,” said Dawn Panepinto, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office who helps with Operation Angel. “It’s kind of building this relationship with them, seeing law enforcement in a different light.”

There are stipulations, though. The program only accepts adults, and while someone can be in possession of drugs or paraphernalia when they show up to their local law enforcement station, they aren't eligible if they say they want to use Operation Angel when they are being arrested or otherwise contacted by law enforcement for a drug issue independent of the program.

If someone has an active warrant or other legal obligation, the situation is explained to Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards, who decides, or talks with judges and the District Attorney’s Office, about whether it’s more beneficial for that person to face their charge or go into treatment.

The participants stay in their faith-based program for up to 12 months, so Edwards' office hasn’t yet reached the stage where anyone has made it the full way through. However, officials say they are confident in the progress.

“We’re there to help,” said Sgt. Thomas Wheeler,  a narcotics officer with the Tangipahoa Sheriff's Office. “We have to enforce the laws, that’s our job, but we’re also here to help people and you’ve got to do that just because you’re a human being. There’s consequences and repercussions for everything you do but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk to you … and say how can we fix your problem?”

Tangipahoa Parish has seen the same spike in fatal overdoses as many other Louisiana areas since the opioid crisis was exacerbated with the introduction of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil several years ago.

The parish went from 32 fatal overdoses in 2016 with four cases having recorded traces of fentanyl, to 45 fatal overdoses two years later with 19 positive fentanyl tests. The 2018 fatal overdose number is more than five times the homicide number for the same year.

But, officials see it as promising when almost as many people as had fatally overdosed last year are this year utilizing programs like Operation Angel.

Lynhaven Retreat in Hammond is the only Operation Angel-affiliated program in Tangipahoa Parish, with the ability to take in 33 women at its capacity. The men who seek help are sent to a neighboring facility in Lacombe that operates on the same concept.

Ginger Jones, who runs Lynhaven Retreat and stays on site with the participants, staff, her husband and two dogs, keeps the day structured to give stability to women she says are more often than not broken.

They do breakfast, quiet time, Bible study, lunch, chores, dinner and chapel each day. They get a recreation day Friday to paddle boat on the small lake onsite, swim in the pool, read, play putt putt golf or play basketball.

The women have limited contact with family and friends for the first 30 days of their stay but after that are allowed weekly phone calls and visits. They staff events like reunions, work retreats and weddings on site, gaining job skills like serving, planning and event setup.

“One thing that is the common catalyst in all of it is lack of relationship and just being broken,” Jones said. “It’s really no different if you have someone coming from physical abuse or substance abuse, it’s a brokenness, and we see all of it.”

Thomas has been at Lynhaven since late September, and has only recently gained the privilege to see her family. She has an 11-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son who have been old enough to understand her addiction, but she hopes they see her work to get clean as an accomplishment.

“It’s changed my outlook on life, my inner peace, my clarity, my closeness to God,” she said. “I’m finding my way.”

As she shuffled around the large hall cleaning a floor that had most recently been used for a business’ fall festival, Thomas said she hopes to continue her stay at Lynhaven after her year commitment by completing their “masters program” which would give her an administrative job on site and aid with re-entry back into society.

“I haven’t called someplace home in a long time and this is home,” she said.

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