Anytime Dan Auflick dons his Evergreen Health shirt in public, he proudly points to it and tells people, “I work at Evergreen, and I manage the syringe exchange.” He uses every interaction to advocate for the health and safety of people who use drugs, and he greets perplexed looks with a conversation about ending the stigma. In the latest Team Evergreen interview, Dan talks to us about what it’s like to manage a syringe exchange program and how Evergreen encourages patients to raise their voices in Albany.
What, exactly, does a syringe exchange program manager do?
In a nutshell, I manage the day-to-day operations of Evergreen’s syringe exchange program in Buffalo. We have a satellite office in Jamestown and a mobile unit that goes out on a weekly basis to various locations across Western New York to offer clean needles and injection tools. A lot of my time is spent working with people to exchange syringes and other equipment to make drug use safer. I engage with patients to see what their needs are, and I use their feedback to inform programming and community partnerships.
Can you tell us more about the syringe exchange program?
The work we do focuses on overdose prevention, safer drug use and raising awareness of Naloxone, a medication used to counteract the effects of an overdose. We make sure that people who use drugs know about Naloxone and are trained to use it in the event of an overdose. On top of providing training, we also talk to people about safer ways of using. If you’re using alone, we might ask, “Is there someone you can use with to reduce the risk of overdose?” We may also ask about how much someone uses or what their patterns of use are, because those factors can have a huge impact on someone’s risk of overdosing. We focus on helping people be healthier while engaging in behavior that’s associated with risk.
What’s the best part of your job?
We’re at the forefront of advocacy with a focus on educating people in the community about what’s happening in the world relative to substance use, overdosing and the political trends surrounding those topics. That alone is amazing. But being so close to patients with lived experience is like nothing else.
What’s one of the most difficult parts of your job?
One of the biggest challenges is the social climate and stigma that surrounds substance use and people who use drugs. The world is a very scary, stigmatizing place for someone who is actively using, regardless of whether they’re trying to use less or seek treatment. We can participate in advocacy initiatives and sit down with people around the clock, but at the end of the day, they still have to go out into the world.
How does Evergreen work to overcome that stigma?
In the Harm Reduction Center, patients can volunteer to take trips to Albany with our staff. During those trips, they advocate for the passage of laws aimed at decriminalizing syringe possession and getting medications covered that help with substance use disorder. It’s cool to be able to see the patients you work with on a day-to-day basis stand up and vocalize their own experiences. Talking about it has a real impact on people and politicians who have no idea how these issues affect someone’s daily life.
What were you doing before you started at Evergreen?
I worked at the Matt Urban Center on the East Side. They do a wide variety of human services programming. Think of any community need, and chances are Matt Urban does it. My work was specifically around homelessness and outreach services, including housing and other basic needs.
Why did you make the switch?
I knew a couple of people that worked at Evergreen, and I knew the reputation Evergreen had in terms of its services, operations and values. That drew me here. The opportunity came at a good time, and it really fit something I’m passionate about.
And what is that something that you’re passionate about?
Having a harm reduction lens and letting patients drive the decisions. Empowering people to make their own choices about their health is not something you get in a lot of places. We serve a diverse set of people from Jamestown to Buffalo, and it’s not homogeneous. As an organization, Evergreen is really good about understanding that progress looks different for every person. We try to figure out what a person needs and work with them on an individualized basis.
Why did you decide to go into social work?
I think a lot of people who work at Evergreen and in human services have some sort of life experience that has impacted why they do what they do. For me, it was having family who faced substance use issues and overdosing. But even now, the things we work on with people every day are intrinsic motivators to get more involved.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I have always been interested in larger social issues and social justice, which is why I studied sociology at Binghamton. On top of that, Russian culture and history have always enamored me, and I actually had my sights set on learning Russian and using that in some capacity. In a different life, I might have continued my studies and worked overseas in human rights.
When you’re not advocating for human rights, how do you spend your time?
I have two little girls, and I spend a lot of time trying to get my four-year-old to eat—she refuses. Some mornings, I enjoy riding my bike to work…but it usually depends on whether or not my daughter wants to eat her yogurt. I also like to run and play soccer recreationally, and I go to the Buffalo Zoo, Tifft Nature Preserve and Delaware Park with my wife and kids. If I can fit any of those things in after getting my daughter to eat something, it’s a successful day.
What are you proud of?
My little sister just became an RN, and I’m super proud of her because she has been through a lot of struggles in her life and has come a long way. I’m also proud of my wife. She knows that I’m very passionate about my career, and she has always been supportive. And lastly, I’m proud to say I work at Evergreen. I love working in a place that is really focused on meeting people’s needs.
We love your enthusiasm, Dan! Thank you for all you do for Evergreen and your patients.