Finding grace

A Franciscan Health outreach program hopes to ‘Party with a Purpose’ and bring awareness to a growing epidemic

By Jeremy Dunn

During the fall of 2015, Franciscan Health Foundation executive director Greg Williamson was learning about the severity of the opiate crisis affecting Indiana. More specifically, Williamson was becoming more aware of the frightening rise in the number of cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a condition where babies are born dependent of opiates and experiencing painful withdrawals, facing local mothers and their newborns. After consulting with many of his colleagues, the executive director realized something had to be done to address this growing issue.

“After speaking with healthcare experts on the front line, like Dr. Paul Winchester and Erin Neu, RN, I wrote a draft plan for The Grace Project. The plan had lots of different elements and some lofty goals. Where we settled, to get started, was providing practical help to moms who were motivated to overcome their addiction and make a better life for their babies,” Williamson said.

Searching for grace

Through Williamson’s vision, Franciscan Health was able to establish an outreach program focused on assisting mothers struggling with addiction and their babies. Neu, a mother of 10 and 20-year nursing veteran, said, “The Grace Project assists moms in developing a treatment plan for recovery, supports them in a non-judgmental environment, provides financial assistance for treatment programs, transportation, housing, utilities, infant and mommy supplies, parenting/childbirth classes, preparing them for delivery, what to expect following delivery and we send them home with skills and confidence to be the mothers they want to be, just like every other mom.”

A growing concern

Unfortunately, medical professionals in Indiana have seen an alarming spike in NAS cases within NICU units. “Today, at Franciscan Health, 10 percent or more of our NICU admissions are for NAS. That means that every day there is at least one infant in our NICU suffering from NAS, often two and occasionally three,” Williamson warned.

Neu is mindful that these struggles with addiction are not merely tied to illegal drug use and has no stereotype. “Patients were prescribed pain medications following every procedure, from dental work to sports injuries. It was routine and seemed to be a ‘miracle drug’ for pain control. Patients were becoming dependent on these medications and were either getting refills or doctor/hospital jumping to get more pills. Our medical community realized this was becoming a problem and stopped prescribing, which has now led to the current epidemic of illicit drugs and Substance Use Disorder (SUD),” she said.

The challenges of quitting these opiates can include terrifying physical and mental anguish. “It is extremely difficult to quit, the pain of withdrawal is horrifying and often mothers continue to use so they are able to ‘function,’ taking care of their families, working and just surviving. They are frightened and feel they will be judged and don’t know how, who or where to go for help. The stigma of ‘how can a pregnant mom do this to their innocent baby’ is most likely why they don’t ask for help. Most are financially strapped and may not be in a safe and sober free environment,” Neu said.

Nurse Navigator Erin Neu, Nurse Lori Kraeszig and Greg Williamson, executive director for Franciscan Health Foundation Central Indiana, discuss developments in caring for infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. At any given time, about 10 percent of infants treated at Franciscan Health Indianapolis’ neonatal intensive care unit are born with opiate-related addictions. (Submitted Photo)

Changing the stigma

While The Grace Project strives to assist mothers battling addiction, more importantly, the devoted outreach hopes to change the stigma regarding addiction and implement early intervention, support and treatment opportunities. Williamson acknowledges that Franciscan Health is prepared to lead the charge. “At Franciscan Health we are close to opening our new behavioral health center under the direction of my colleague Joan Showalter. We’ll be able to provide a wide array of mental health services including those addressing the opiate crisis. The types of services needed to help people overcome addiction include individual counseling, intensive outpatient therapy and support from peer groups like 12-step programs and – this is essential – it  will require the care of a physician who can administer the proper medications to help in recovery,” Williamson said.

The Grace Project founder fittingly added, “Of course, all these interventions will require large amounts of compassion and grace.”

Party for a Purpose

On Saturday, Sept. 22, The Grace Project will host its first “Party for a Purpose” at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. The event looks to provide ongoing financial support to the dedicated outreach program. “We thought we needed a fun event to raise money and awareness for The Grace Project,” Williamson said. “Our evening will include several food stations, casino-style gaming tables and later in the evening we will enjoy comedy and music courtesy of Felix & Fingers dueling pianos.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit or call (317) 528-8949.

Fighting back

Epidemics may seem to arrive in a moment’s notice but very rarely do they vanish in the same time frame. These nightmares often leave us grasping for hope amongst the most complex scenarios. However, Williamson, Neu and the members of The Grace Project may have stumbled across a beacon of light in the darkest of times.  Driven by love and seeking compassion and grace, this outreach could be the heartbeat that gives life to the fight against one of the greatest enemies of our time.

5 Questions with Grace Project leaders Greg Williamson and Erin Neu

  1. What is your greatest accomplishment?

Williamson: In time, maybe my greatest accomplishment will be The Grace Project. I pray it grows into a program that can change the course of addiction. Today, The Grace Project provides practical help like food, diapers, cribs, car seats and transportation. Tomorrow, I hope The Grace Project is providing career training, education scholarships, job placement and safe and secure housing.

Neu: Personally, my greatest accomplishment is my family. They are pretty special and I am blessed beyond dreams! Professionally, I am so proud to have been a part of The Grace Project and I am amazed by the support of our hospital family; from caring for patients at bedside to bi-weekly payroll donations to The Grace Project.

  1. What is the best advice that you’ve ever received?

Williamson: I think the best advice you can receive is simply to watch people you admire and try to emulate them. I’ve been fortunate to see many gifted and talented people work hard to improve the lives of others.

Neu: As a young mom, a very busy young mom, I was told by a dear friend that while folding laundry to think of something special with each item I fold for that particular child. It became an obsession and I started doing it with dishes, homework, cleaning their rooms and it made every job a bit easier.

  1. If you had to suggest one book to someone, what would it be and why?

Williamson: For those with children, pick up a Ronald Dahl book. Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, BFG and many others. If you can keep the attention of children, you are a creative genius.

Neu: I don’t read too much. I wish I had more time to read because I really enjoy it. To date, it would have to be Oh, the Places You Will Go by Dr. Seuss.

  1. What is your favorite movie and why?

Williamson: I am a sucker for movies that inspire you to take risks or movies that make you cry. Remember the Titans managed to do both.

Neu: Because I have 10 kids, I have to be fair to my boys and my girls! We love football and love music and dancing. So, my boys get Remember the Titans or The Blind Side and my girls get Grease and Dirty Dancin’.

  1. What is your favorite part about living or working in Greenwood?

Williamson: I live in Fishers and make the lovely commute to the Southside.

Neu: The Southside is a close and very tight community. I love the small town feel even with the growth and progression. If you need something, all you have to do is ask and most likely if you live here, you stay here!