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Conversations with Sara Szelagowski

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sara Szelagowski.

Hi Sara, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I grew up in a wonderful family. Dad worked, mom stayed home with my siblings and I. We took family vacations and celebrated all the holidays together with extended family. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. There was no “reason” for me to start using drugs, other than I was wired differently than my siblings. I always hung out with an older crowd, because I was so mature :-). I drank, and loved it. I smoked weed, and loved it. Looking back now, I know my family has a history of obsessive compulsive disorder and depression – we are over thinkers. We get stuck in our thoughts. I didn’t realize this when I was younger, but using drugs and drinking helped the constant “chatter” in my mind quiet down and lessened my feelings of anxiety. Around the age of 22, I started dabbling with more and more substances. Up to that point, alcohol and weed had mostly been my vices. Now I was starting to experiment with Percocet, morphine pills, Xanax, and eventually Oxycontin. I absolutely loved the euphoria, the stress relief, and the calm these pills brought to my life. I managed to contain my using mostly to just weekends after having worked all week. And then I met a man who had the same love, or so I thought, for these pills that I did. We started dating and using together. Gradually, I started using more and more frequently and I soon learned he was interested in much heavier drugs than I – heroin and crack.

Heroin scared me, I knew it was bad. There had been people from my neighborhood who died of overdoses when I was in high school. Heroin was a SERIOUS drug. People who use heroin were “bad”. These had been my initial thoughts, but the day came when our dealer didn’t have pills and sent us home with heroin instead and all those thoughts went out the window when I did my first shot of dope. An instant rush, and then, an overwhelming numbness and calm. I was floating. I was happy. I just… was. And so began my downward spiral.

Within months, we had our car repossessed, we had utilities shut off, we had sold anything of value in our house, we couldn’t pay rent. Every dollar we had went to our dealer. We didn’t care much about food, or family, or having fun. We just needed to use at that point. Dopesickness is unlike anything I had ever felt. My skin would crawl, it felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest, cold sweats, hot flashes, and the obsessive thoughts to just get more consumed me. Our sole motivation in life at that point was to not be dopesick.. We did whatever we had to do to get money – steal, lie, beg. There was no shame, no remorse. We just needed more.

Eventually, my family found out what I had been doing and moved me home to detox and leave drugs behind. I did well for a little while, and then a few months later I relapsed. The summer of 2015 was awful. My world consisted of a small apartment, the man I lived with, and the dopeman. That’s all I needed in life. I eventually wore out my welcome where I was living and once again my family took me in. This time they were wiser. They knew I was not staying sober and on October 7th 2015, my mom called the police and had me arrested. Being a mother now myself, I cannot imagine how crushing that was for her to do – but she saved my life.

I spent about a month in jail, another 2 and a half months in inpatient treatment, and 17 weeks in intensive outpatient groups. I began attending 12-step meetings, meeting new people, and learning how to REALLY change my life this time. People have asked, why were you able to stay sober this time and not the prior time you tried? The answer to that question is simple – it was my time. I was tired. And willing to do some real work on myself.

I have watched so many people go in and out of the recovery rooms. I have attended so many funerals, seen families crushed by the destruction of addiction. In 2018, my boyfriend’s brother died of an overdose. That is the day I saw a white butterfly and felt a sense of peace over the loss that had occurred. That butterfly represented peace, freedom, transformation. I started noticing the white butterflies everywhere.

Then, in 2019, I attended a series of 6 or 8 funerals for friends in a two month time span. It was heavy. Very, very heavy. How can I help get through to people to let them know there is help and there are people who care out here? I remember when I was using, I felt invisible. So some friends and I decided to make up cards and hang them around the city, in areas where we knew people were using. It was an anonymous, gentle way to reach them. Perhaps they would feel like finding the card was “meant to be” in a way powerful enough that they would reach out for help. Inside the cards we placed a short, encouraging note and numbers for detox centers.

We posted on social media what we were doing, and surprisingly, many people wanted to get involved. Not just in the Cleveland, OH area, but across the country. My eyes were opened to just how many people addiction touched. Not only those who use, but the families, the communities, and the children. Project White Butterfly began flourishing in September of 2019. During Covid-19 we sent out thousands of cards across the country, at the request of individuals who supported what we did and wanted to do the same in their community. We provided holiday meals and gifts to people in residential treatment and sober living in 2019 and 2020.

Towards the end of 2020 I was approached by a woman, who is a guiding light in the recovery community in Cleveland, Ohio, and told there was funding we could apply for to help turn Project White Butterfly into a full time job for me and to continue spreading our mission. We received that funding and in spring of 2021, Project White Butterfly started providing outreach on the streets of Cuyahoga County in Ohio. We hand out resources, including Narcan and fentanyl test strips, connect individuals to detox, treatment, and meetings, provide peer recovery support, start conversations and provide a safe space for people who are using and their families to share some of the weight they are carrying.

The work is emotionally taxing some days. We see people struggling every day. We talk to people who have succumbed to the thought that this is all their life will ever be. And my coworker and I say, “I get it. I was there too.” People look at us in disbelief. I remember that same disbelief. 6 years sober sounded like an Olympic feat to me at one time. I would pray to make it a few hours between shots of dope. I didn’t have the capacity to fathom what life could be like sober. So we do what we can to meet people exactly where they are and help them take baby steps towards healthier choices.

I don’t know how or why I was one of the lucky ones who made it out of my addiction. I see heroin and fentanyl racking up victims day in and day out. Over 93,000 in 2020. To me, that is unacceptable. The stigma I see in communities is unacceptable. These things fuel my drive to do more. And then, when we are able to provide the work and support and services, we meet people with hearts of gold. People who show compassion and willingness to help. And many days, that is all someone who is struggling needs. That fresh air of love and understanding. And that is why I continue to work by butt off to continue this work. To continue educating. To continue providing resources. To continue connecting people to the support they need. Because I know, there is no rhyme or reason or secret technique that gets people to see things differently, but I know by showing them love and support, we spark hope. And where there is hope, there can be change.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Starting a nonprofit, while raising a toddler, being a person in recovery, and working a full time job is quite a challenge. The logistics and paperwork and learning curve were difficult for me. I did not set out planning to start an organization. I simply wanted to reach people in active addiction and help them. Two of the hardest parts – and maybe they only seem hard to me because I am still new at this – were creating healthy boundaries between work and personal life and securing sustainable funding. I am still working on the balance of work and personal life, daily. It is in my nature to help. It is also in my nature to do more for this growing organization than I probably should, or than my family would like. I often have to remind myself this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Then there is funding that involves paperwork and research and connections – basically it is a lot of work that takes time away from me being in the streets doing the work, and that is where my heart is. It is not that it is hard, really, it is time consuming. The best things in life require a lot of hard work and sacrifices. I am willing to do the work because the work helps save lives.

We have also encountered close-mindedness and heard some really terrible things from people who do not think we should be helping people with addiction. People who think that a person chooses to be addicted. Chooses to throw away their life. One day, while we were out handing out Narcan, a car drove by and the woman screamed “Just let them die!” That is hurtful, but a woman I have a lot of respect for once told me that often times the most opposition to our work comes from people who have been hurt by someone’s addiction – maybe a parent, sibling, or significant other. So we have to practice our love and tolerance a little extra on those days. Use the opposition as fuel to provide more education about addiction, more work to help people see the people behind the disease.

We have also encountered close-mindedness and heard some really terrible things from people who do not think we should be helping people with addiction. People who think that a person chooses to be addicted. Chooses to throw away their life. One day, while we were out handing out Narcan, a car drove by and the woman screamed “Just let them die!” The statement was extremely hurtful, but a woman I have a lot of respect for once told me that often times the most opposition to our work comes from people who have been hurt by someone’s addiction – maybe a parent, sibling, or significant other. So we have to practice our love and tolerance a little extra on those days. Use the opposition as fuel to provide more education about addiction, more work to help people see the people behind the disease.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
Project White Butterfly specializes in street outreach. First and foremost, we hang up cards – that contain a handwritten message and numbers for resources – in communities where we know people are using. We are well known for involving volunteers in making these cards – church groups, high schools, families of people lost to addiction, families who have a member of their family in active addiction, people genuinely interested in helping spread some love. In addition, we set up a table on sidewalks throughout the county, hand out free resources, connect people with recovery supportive services, and share stories/life experiences.

I am most proud of the fact that this mission grew from love – and continues to be fueled by love. It has happened so organically, I cannot believe it was anything other than Divine direction. Yes, I have put in hours and work to help things grow, but the interest and support of others has carried the organization. The willingness of people to open up and share their stories. The compassion of people to come together and help others shed the weight of pain. Project White Butterfly is very much a grassroots organization and I love it this way. It is about community and supporting people. Life is just easier when we help each other, rather than trying to struggle through things alone. There are so many organizations in Cleveland, Ohio that work to help people with addiction, but I truly feel we stand out as real, approachable people in recovery with a genuine desire to help.

Who else deserves credit in your story?
Where so I start!? In no particular order, stream of consciousness…

– All of our social media followers.

– Anyone who has helped make Project White Butterfly cards.

– Hotcards for helping design and print our cards.

– Michelle L. who filed our initial organizational paperwork.

– Erin H. who believed in our mission and helped turn this into my full time job.

– Christine G., who literally will help with anything asked of her and is a networking whiz!

– Jasmine K. my co-worker who stands on the sidewalk with me, puts in hours, gives out her number, is proof that prison numbers won’t hold you back from achieving anything you want to – and would do it all even without a paycheck.

– Aja, our inventory specialist. Aja makes up card kits, ships them across the country, delivers them locally, and joins us on the street. Even when we had major unexpected adjustments to schedules and funding, she said “I want to keep doing this, it’s so important.”

– Project White Butterfly Board Members – who share a wealth of knowledge to help the organization grow, help with so much behind the scenes work, keep me grounded, help navigate the twists and turns, and ultimately want to help Project White Butterfly help people.

– Organizations who have allowed us to provide outreach on their properties.

– People who have helped direct us to people, resources, and service providers.

– Anyone who has donated to support our work.

– My family – man, my family. I dragged them through some really tough stuff, and today they support me and help me by caring for my son when work hours get crazy. They are the best examples I have of “loving people through it.” I can’t remember one time when I was using that they ever really screamed or cut me down. Love permeated through it all, even when I was completely shut off. I am blessed, truly blessed, with the family I have.

– My boyfriend – through his struggles, I was forced to grow – A LOT. Some days the pain I felt from seeing him struggling was turned into new ideas or efforts to help others. I am happy to say he has been on a recovery path for a good length of time now, proof there is no rhyme or reason, everyone find their path in their due time.

– Miranda D. – I grew more while working on my recovery with her than I ever have in my life. She was placed in my life to help me find my path.

– Every person lost to the disease of addiction – the work Project White Butterfly does is in your honor.

– Every person who is out there working to help people find recovery.

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