A crowd of New Year's Eve revelers squeezed into the dark room where local punk band Random Ideas and a rapper new to the scene were taking turns at the mic. Police Chief Mike McFadden stood in the back among the spotlights and amps and watched nervously like he was a kid throwing a party while his parents were away: all this was taking place in the office and lobby of Belfast Police Department.

"It wasn't something we'd ever done before," he said. "While I was standing there listening to the band, I thought, 'Could we get in trouble for this?'"

But once he saw so many people enjoying the music, and even some members of the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center sober and having a good time, he said he knew it was a positive thing.

For McFadden the event was an attempt to forge a new kind of bond with the community.

"So often police departments alienate themselves from the community," he said. "And they sometimes do it intentionally."

The free concert was also part of a larger effort that takes a new approach to addiction. Waldo Encourages Community Assisted Recovery Efforts, or WeCare, is a nonprofit group working to reduce the stigma of addiction by raising awareness of its status as a brain disease (see related story) at the same time as it is making community resources more open and accessible.

“We want to bring addiction and recovery 'out of the closet' and 'out of the basement,'” said Patricia Kaplan of Belmont, a social worker and drug counselor and a primary founder of WeCare.

WeCare's inception

The group grew out of a panel discussion at a screening of "Hungry Heart" at Colonial Theatre in which McFadden told the packed audience that the problem of drug addiction and alcoholism is just as real in Belfast as in the town of St. Albans, Vt., depicted in the film.

Following the screening, there was overwhelming response to a request from Patrick Walsh of Broadreach for people to join his until then poorly attended Drug Action Task Force meetings, and as a result that group eventually split into two with two different focuses. WeCare is focused on recovery and treatment, and the Task Force is focused on youth education.

WeCare, whose mission is "to build a collaborative, non-judgmental environment to support addiction recovery through education, advocacy, and compassionate community action," now has partnerships with Restorative Justice, its fiscal sponsor; Seaport Community Health Center; Reentry Center graduates; and First Baptist Church of Belfast. Waldo County General Hospital has also shown willingness to work with the group, and athenahealth donated seed money to the organization. It is on its way to becoming 501(c)3 certified.

While the organization does direct people to resources such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, it also introduces the idea that recovery can be a public and social endeavor for those who need more community support.

"We have a tremendous, but hidden, resource in this county of people who are managing addictions," Kaplan said, and added that the group would connect struggling addicts with those who have the disease under control as recovery support partners.

Also, the group works to bring conversations and artistic expressions of the effort to overcome addiction into public venues. The rapper Mike Connors, aka “Mike John,” a performer at the New Year's Eve event who made his way to Belfast from Illinois via the Reentry Center, discovered the program during his time off around town, and is now a member of the WeCare board. He raps about his struggle with recovery and wrote a WeCare theme song with beats composed by Matt Sommer, owner of Out-of-Nowhere recording studio in Belfast:

"You know you've gotta stop but don't have a clue/ getting sick in the morning seems appealing to you /… I wanted to change but needed direction/ By myself I couldn't do it but with help I was destined/… We wanna change the stigma that has been with addiction/ change the fact that 80 percent of addicts locked up in prison/ Many people die every day from this problem, and the government ain't got a clue how to solve it."

A delicate balance

“I've been at a police station on New Year's Eve before, but it wasn't voluntarily,” Connors said, laughing, after his set. “But I have a friendly relationship with the chief of police now. WeCare and things like this have changed my perspective of the police.”

As drug use is a social problem, the police should be tolerant and compassionate, McFadden said, but at the same time they can't give the impression that it is OK. He said his membership on the board of WeCare will not make the department soft on crime, but it is also important to him that his department is not seen as continuing a "failed war on drugs."

“There's a finesse to it,” he said. “And it comes with maturity. What I figured out is I don't have to be adversary with everyone who violates a law. We will still enforce the laws, but if we can educate people and let them know about resources available in the process, why wouldn't we?”

He hopes the program will affect how officers treat individuals when they respond to situations involving drugs or alcohol. He plans to give them training in the science of addiction as a chronic relapsing brain disorder so they will be more inclined to treat people in those situations with compassion rather than as "losers."

Get involved

The New Year's Eve concert was just one of the ways WeCare is working to bring recovering addicts together in public. The group will also be holding rallies at Post Office Square on the first Saturday of each month from noon to 2 p.m., and open meetings on the second and fourth Mondays of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church of Belfast.

Kaplan said there will also be a special meeting Monday, Jan. 12, at the First Baptist Church in which representatives from Grace Street Recovery Center will come to talk about the organization's development. The centers, with locations in Portland and Lewiston, provide both treatment and art classes to recovery center patrons.

In addition, WeCare plans to open a recovery center in downtown Belfast. Members will be touring places like Bangor Area Recovery Network and recovery centers in Portland to get ideas. Kaplan says the center would not be as large as the BARN facility, though, which is housed in a former supermarket.

"It'll be like a coffee shop, something that will fit in," said McFadden, and it would be a place where anyone can come and talk about recovery, offer support or get connected with resources.

“I'm not confident the way to solve this problem is the old-fashioned way of doing things,” McFadden said. “I think this is the way to get us there, for people to know there are services out there and there are people who care and people who will understand — but none of this will be possible without the support of the community.”