RICHMOND, Va. -- Courtney Nunnally nearly became a statistic, but a Richmond Police Officer helped her overcome her drug addiction. Now Nunnally has dedicated her life to helping other people stay clean.
Nunnally turned to drugs as a result of childhood trauma.
“When I was four my brother died in a sand dune accident and when I was five my mom died in a car accident," she said.
She started drinking as an adolescent to numb her pain.
"Then when I was 13 I met an older crowd of guys and the first drug they introduced me to was crack," she said.
By age 18 she was pregnant and got married, but still abused drugs.
She was busted too many times to count.
“It was like a revolving door of arrest and rearrest. Arrest and released. The longest I stayed in jail was like five months," she said. "I didn’t care if I lived or died after a while. I didn’t think that my life was worth anything and I didn’t think I could change it."
But she could. And she did.
“She was in pretty bad shape," Richmond Police Lt. Frank Scarpa remembered.
For years Scarpa tried to help, but Nunnally's false promises did not leave him feeling optimistic.
“The final straw for me was that she got pregnant with River," he said.
“He said enough is enough you can do this to your own life but you can’t do this to your child," Nunnally said. "Either you get help or you’re going to jail and you won’t see your kids again. I’ll make sure of it."
She made a decision to get clean.
"She has turned herself around and just turned into the person I thought she was going to be," Scarpa said. "Intelligent. Bright and just driven."
Nunnally was motivated not just to get sober but to help others. Last year, she received a call from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The feds tapped her to take the lead on a new program called Project Recover.
Project Recover pairs five peer recovery specialists with first responders from the Chesterfield Police, Richmond Police, Henrico Fire and EMS, and the Richmond Ambulance Authority.
"I think it is imperative. It is saving lives and reducing stigma," she said. "I want to humanize the badge and humanize the addicts."
Nunnally and her teammates arrive on overdose calls with first responders to provide support to the person in crisis.
"Having someone to help you through that. Somebody who has been through that is a lifeline that we can offer people," she said.
Kim Ulmet, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Nunnally and the other peer specialists on Project Recover provide a life-saving perspective.
"They are in the trenches working with the people the moment they are revived," Ulmet said. “The one and only person I knew could take the reigns on this project and bring it full circle was Courtney."
The program, which launched in March, is already making a difference.
"There is a good avenue so we don’t have to throw them in jail every time. They have a chance to get help. But at the same time if they don’t follow through then they get the full force of the law.”
Scarpa said Nunnally’s knowledge has proven invaluable to first responders.
"I wouldn’t be here having this conversation if I wasn’t very proud of her. What she has accomplished," Scarpa said.
It is not lost on Nunnally who she has teamed with in her new role.
“To tell me I was going to work with cops later I would have laughed at you," she said.
This December she will celebrate 10 years clean and sober.
“We are not going to give up. We’re going to always be here for them," she said. "I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to be able to be there for other people and try to offer them what I was offered when I needed it most.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is expanding the program to include area hospitals and other police departments across central Virginia.
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