Bethel Event Church hosted the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office and Operation Helping Hand on March 15 to offer assistance to those in the community struggling with addiction.
Operation Helping Hand was started by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to help combat the uptick in drug-related overdoses. The program began as an arrest-based model in drug “hot spots” throughout the state, including Camden.
“We would put undercover officers in place in these hot spots and bring people looking to buy narcotics into custody and take them right to a processing location,” said Lt. Carlos Plaza of the prosecutor’s office. “At that location, detectives would pass off the individual to peer-recovery specialists who were already on scene to see if we could convince the person to make a change and get help.”
Operation Helping Hand has expanded and begun partnering with programs in the county aimed at decreasing addiction and overdoses, including the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, the Center for Family Services and local police municipalities. Plaza said the goal is to partner with as many groups as possible.
“By adding more personnel, we become a force multiplier, which is our hope,” Plaza explained. “Organizations looking to join Operation Helping Hand can reach out to the Community Outreach and Engagement Unit of the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. We will educate you more on what Operation Helping Hand is and teach you more about the role each organization plays.”
Plaza admitted change was not something that happened overnight, that it’s much easier to arrest drug addicts than to rehabilitate them. Arrest is no longer the main goal; getting addicts the right help is.
“We as an office have evolved over time to be more proactive and less reactive when it comes to issues such as this,” Plaza said. “We understand that we cannot arrest our way out of these situations.
“We have learned that we must empower our community, our families, friends and neighbors,” he added, “and guide them to services that can immediately address their various needs.”
Operation Helping Hand will hold events throughout Camden County; it is currently holding one per month, but Plaza wants to increase that so as many county residents as possible have the opportunity to seek help.
The next Operation Helping hand event will be on April 19, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., in conjunction with the Pine Hill Police Department. It will take place at the Spanish Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Plaza wants those struggling with substance abuse to see law enforcement as an ally and a path to a clean lifestyle.
“We don’t want anybody to stay away from these events because law enforcement is present,” he said. “We are human as well. We understand people are hurting and need assistance.
“If we didn’t see people showing up to these Operation Helping Hand events, the model would likely change to find other ways to assist these individuals,” Plaza added. “But people are showing up, and we will continue to do our part to help.”