CORONAVIRUS

Iowa's largest harm reduction organization moves from advocacy to focus on service during pandemic

Alex Flesher, a team leader with the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, seals up a free Naloxone kit during a mobile outreac
Alex Flesher, a team leader with the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, seals up a free Naloxone kit during a mobile outreach event in downtown Cedar Rapids, in this 2018 photo. The kits include directions on use of the medication to reverse an opioid overdose. (The Gazette)
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Despite the challenges around the departure of its founder and the ongoing pandemic that has hindered many not-for-profit organizations, the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition is “still in business.”

In the weeks since Sarah Ziegenhorn, who founded the organization in 2016, departed from her role with IHRC in early August, the board of directors has had to readjust.

IHRC is an Eastern Iowa-based not-for-profit organization that offers harm reduction services for those who use injection drugs. It has built a public-facing role as advocates for legalizing needle exchange programs and other stronger public health policies around those dealing with substance use disorders over the past two years.

However, IHRC’s board chairman said advocacy likely will take a back seat in the future as officials prioritize maintaining its outreach services to clients.

“We are still here and still super committed to doing the core work of serving and taking care of our clients. In this immediate transition, everyone agreed that providing services is the primary mission,” said Dr. Daniel Runde, who also is an emergency medicine physician at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The pandemic has taken a huge toll on the nation’s economy, and not-for-profits have not been spared. An estimated 34,000 NFPs could go out of business without any aid, according to projections by the research group Candid.

The financial impact on these organizations is in part due to the drop in donations. A survey conducted in March by the Nonprofit Finance Fund found about 50 percent of U.S.-based nonprofits were experiencing a decline in contributions.

That’s in addition to the 75 percent reduction in earned revenue.

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Large fundraising events for IHRC have been on pause as social-distancing guidelines remain in place.

Still, Ziegenhorn recently told The Gazette she’s optimistic for the organization’s sustainability because IHRC has weathered funding disruptions “even before COVID-19.”

Because of these challenges, hiring a new executive director will have to be put on the back burner, Runde said.

IHRC leaders hope to find a grant to fund the position. But until that is possible, “the board has committed to doing the work that needs to be done.”

Ziegenhorn said she had taken on the majority of the work to run the organization day to day, as well as IHRC’s advocacy and education efforts.

She left the position to focus on finishing her medical education, having been enrolled as a student at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine for the past few years.

“Sarah’s vision, expertise, and compassionate advocacy for people who use drugs are the heart of IHRC. The board is deeply grateful for her leadership,” the board of directors said in a statement at the time of Ziegenhorn’s departure.

Ziegenhorn also hoped her exit would ensure IHRC was sustainable for the long-term. When she founded the organization four years ago, she had envisioned an effort that was community led. Instead, she saw it was relying heavily on her expertise and skills.

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“An organization can be more sustainable when it’s building a movement and there’s a lot of people who are equally invested,” she said. “I was wanting (IHRC) to be an organization working from that perspective, but I was struggling to get more traction from individuals who were engaged.”

The board of directors emphasized it remained “committed to the core missions of IHRC,” but the loss of a key figure in the organization created some shock waves in the community.

A petition began circulating online shortly after Ziegenhorn’s departure, questioning whether the board of directors was qualified to lead a harm reduction organization because they lacked lived experience.

The petition ultimately garnered about 70 signatures.

Ziegenhorn also emphasized her belief in the importance of those with “meaningful lived experience” shaping and leading the work of the organization going forward.

“People who come to a place like IHRC to receive services are typically folks who are reluctant to engage with traditional institutions, and many steer clear from hospitals, clinics and the like,” she said in an interview with The Gazette.

“So for those who do choose to walk through the doors, they typically do so because they trust, identify with and connect with the people who make up the organization.”

The board said in a statement it supports the right of its clients and others in the organization “to have their voices heard on issues that are meaningful to them” and is open to discussions with those circulating the petition.

Despite this and other economic challenges plaguing IHRC throughout the pandemic, Runde said the organization’s volunteers continue to show up in force to offer services to its clients.

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“Given the toughness of this year, I wouldn’t have been entirely shocked if people hadn’t shown up — but they did,” Runde said. “Harm reduction volunteers tend to be good people who are used to adversity and challenges and are still willing to show up and do the work.”

Going forward, Ziegenhorn said her hope is that the organization will “hold true to the values upon which it was founded,” including to continue to offer services and education on the importance of harm reduction.

“Over the past four years, IHRC grew into one of the largest organizations of its kind in the country, and I’m proud of the work that we accomplished,” Ziegenhorn said.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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