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Cleveland woman turns experience with drug addiction into lessons for others

Project White Butterfly
Posted at 2:57 PM, Jan 20, 2022

CLEVELAND — With the new year comes old worries about the staggering number of people in our community dying from drug overdoses. The number of deaths from heroin and fentanyl in Cuyahoga County in 2021 was near record levels seen back in 2017.

One woman, who knows those numbers all too well, is using her pain and past experiences to save lives and make Northeast Ohio a better land.

Instead of cutting her life short, Sara Szelagowski found herself with a second chance.

"There's no rhyme or reason why I made it out and other people ended up in a casket," said Szelagowski.

The turning point for the woman in recovery came during her arrest at the age of 27.

"I'm like man, this isn't the life I want to be living. Everybody knows how to live life and I just didn't," said Szelagowski.

The last time she was high was six years ago, finding sobriety on Oct. 7, 2015. Since then, Szelagowski has been sharing her story to encourage others struggling with substance use disorder.

"I have to show people that it can be done. I wanted to start something to remind people that there are people out there who care, there are people who will listen," said Szelagwoski.

She started by hanging up cards in neighborhoods known for active drug use.

"The cards had a hand-written message in them, just something short and encouraging, and the numbers of resources they could call and get some help," said Szelagowski.

In 2021, Szelagowski was able to expand her outreach thanks to financial support from the State Opioid Response Fund.

"It's a community healing that needs to happen and it's a community mindset that needs to change," said Szelagowski.

That's part of the mission of her organization called Project White Butterfly.

Project White Butterfly

"The butterfly is personally symbolic for me, but also it's a symbol of hope, it's a symbol of transformation and so it all kind of works together," said Szelagowski.

The non-profit hosts pop-up events in neighborhoods throughout Cleveland.

Those using drugs and community members have a chance to pick up fentanyl testing strips and boxes of naloxone, an antidote that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.

Many of the people Szelagowski comes across are surprised to see it being distributed.

"They think it's for doctors and hospitals and medical professionals to have," said Szelagowski.

Despite 2021 coming close to being another record year for opioid deaths in Cuyahoga County, the drug use continues.

"I don't think there's very many people out there who this is scaring that much because they are so deep in their addiction," said Szelagowski.

Szelagowski is committed to breaking that cycle.

"It strips us down to this animalistic, survival mindset. I thought I needed that drug to live," said Szelagowski.

She said it can be done by offering love, compassion and meeting people where they are.

"When I was allowed to share my voice, allowed to share my side of things, the floodgates opened and the healing begins," said Szelagowski.

Helping her community find that peace also keeps Szelagowski on the right path.

"This is the good side, this is the easier side. It's a great reminder, it keeps it in my face, what's waiting for me if I choose to go back out there," said Szelagowski.