Mission Driven
Written by Amy Paradyz
wellness-mobile

Eddie Greyfox Burgess delivers curbside wellness

Nothing draws a crowd like a turquoise 1965 Ford Fairlane shining in the sun—and that’s exactly what Eddie Greyfox Burgess was looking for in a “wellness mobile.”

“It was contemplating its life mission and its personal worth,” Burgess says, with dry humor. “I talked it out of going to the scrapyard, and it now has purpose and a better life. It does get a lot of attention, especially with all the flags on it.”

Burgess, who has health issues that make it difficult for him to continue working full time as a social worker and substance abuse counselor, didn’t think that the state’s dusty pallets of printed materials on topics such as substance abuse, violence and diabetes prevention should go to waste. Four years ago, he started driving around in his pickup truck, handing out old brochures and coloring books and starting conversations with people—sometimes making an impact on the lives of people in desperate situations.

It wasn’t until Burgess refinished the Ford Fairlane two years ago and took it out on an outreach spin that he really started to make some traction—both in terms of event invites and the numbers of people drawn into dialogue. Since then, Burgess has encountered about 50,000 people, distributing marketing materials published by the Centers for Disease Control, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the State of Maine, some printed during the Baldacci administration a decade ago.

“I can’t tell you how many coloring books were shredded to ‘say no to drugs’ or ‘stop drinking’ or ‘don’t smoke,’ which are all messages that should be given out today,” says Burgess, who has been sober since 1994.

“These are all important messages.

But somebody sitting in a cubicle thought that this coloring book was worthless because it has been sitting in a pallet and nobody requested it.”

Confident that the materials would be appreciated even if not requested, Burgess loaded them into the trunk of the Fairlane—along with issues of Journey and poison control and suicide prevention hotline magnets—and went to antique car shows, festivals and public safety events in and surrounding Oxford County. He puts the materials out on a table and lets that start a conversation. “It’s not a clinical setting, and people aren’t hindered in any way and just talk,” he says. “People come and tell me their stories all the time.”

A few years ago, Burgess encountered a young mother with substance use disorder who was living in her van with her son. He encouraged her to get treatment and didn’t know whether he had gotten through to her. It wasn’t until she was picked up on possession charges and went to the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham that she was ready to make a commitment to herself—with medication-assisted treatment (MAT), group counseling and one-on-one therapy.

When she saw Burgess again last summer, she told him that she had 18 months of sobriety and was living with her son in an apartment. A conversation with an empathetic stranger had made a difference—which is, in a nutshell, the mission of Burgess’ Wellness Mobile. It isn’t really about a car or printed materials—it’s about using those tools to forge connections in which Burgess can leverage his personal and professional experiences to pay it forward—to throw a pebble in the pond and wait for the ripples, whether he gets to see them or not.

Sometimes those ripples start in unexpected ways, such as the story of how Burgess turned his life around. “My family is pretty rampant with addiction—drinking, smoking, gambling, and then some other substances like cocaine,” he says. “Addiction has always been around me. Even at a young age I can remember going to people’s birthdays, barbecues, and family gatherings, and everybody was getting hammered. There were always substances.”

Though he is Micmac on his paternal grandfather’s side, Burgess hadn’t grown up connected with the tribe. Nonetheless, the tribe came looking for him in 1994 when he gave up on substance abuse treatment and disconnected from his family. Out of the blue, three Micmac tribal elders showed up at a bed and breakfast in rural New Hampshire and found 22-year-old Burgess sitting in the dark.“They evaluated me, they gave me my name—Greyfox—and they realized the situation that I was in, which wasn’t good,” he says. They led his first recovery meeting—and many more after that, connecting him, both literally and figuratively, with a tribe.

“How they found me, I really have no idea,” he says. “But thank goodness they did.” Burgess never drank again.

After studying human services substance abuse services at Maine Community College and the University of Maine at Augusta, he spent many years as a social worker helping people with substance use disorder, sex addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder.“My health has deteriorated enough now that I don’t really do well in an office,” he says, adding that he is studying for a chaplaincy certificate. “The Wellness Mobile gets me out of the house, driving around in an old car and talking with people.” The Fairlane—and car shows, in general—may be taking a back seat this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Burgess has shifted gears to dropping off bags of materials—including issues of Journey —in economically challenged areas of Franklin, Oxford, Sagadahoc, and Androscoggin counties. Gas card donations keep the old gas guzzler on the road.

More information is available on the Wellness Mobile Facebook page, which is evolving into a community bulletin board of wellness-related resources on everything from substance abuse and suicide prevention to finding food distribution and healthcare resources and avoiding tick-bourne illnesses

“It’s funny: As a kid, I learned how to drive in a Cadillac similar to what John Kennedy drove, and now I’ve kind of gone full circle,” says Burgess. “The Native elders will always tell you life is a circle; where you start, you always return.”

Amy Paradyz

Amy Paradyz

Amy Paradysz writes for Journey, Maine Women Magazine, Green & Healthy Maine Homes and the Portland Press Herald. She has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She lives in Scarborough.