29, Project RED Program Manager at Alano Club of Portland
2023 Prize Winner
Ellen Wirshup had no designs on a career running the Project RED initiative, a program of the nonprofit Alano Club of Portland that helps distribute free Narcan, the medicine most often used to treat opioid overdoses, around the state of Oregon. In fact, when she started getting boxes of the medication from the Alano Club of Portland to deliver to bars in Portland, she was doing so in her spare time as she juggled a pair of service industry jobs.
“Becoming pretty well known as ‘The Narcan Lady,’ as some people have called me, is kind of strange,” Wirshup says. “I’ve been a bartender. I’ve been a host. I’ve been a server. And all these other things. Those jobs felt easy. I knew how to do that. This has been such a learning curve, I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it. I just knew that I wanted Narcan to be everywhere.”
Wirshup is well on her way to making that a reality. Since she was offered a full-time position by the Alano Club to lead Project RED last year, she has been instrumental in delivering the potentially lifesaving medicine free of charge to nearly 200 businesses and schools around Portland. In addition, she estimates she is mailing out at least 400 boxes of Narcan each month throughout the state of Oregon.
“Even though [the Food and Drug Administration] moved Narcan to now be over the counter,” Wirshup says, “a lot of people can’t afford it. People who are at risk of overdose aren’t going to go into Walgreens or Rite-Aid or check it out with a pharmacist. Folks in places like Banks that are much farther away don’t have organizations like Outside In or places they can walk in and grab it. I wanted to make sure that I could get free Narcan to anyone and everyone who needed it or wanted to be a bystander who is prepared.” To that last point, Wirshup also offers training sessions for businesses and individuals who want to learn how to administer Narcan safely and effectively.
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that Oregon saw an 18.2% increase in drug overdose deaths between April 2022 and April 2023, the efforts of Project RED feel more necessary than ever. While statistics like that are fueling her work, in reality, she had a far more personal motivation.
Wirshup went through her own struggles with addiction (she has almost three years of sobriety under her belt), and very recently lost two close friends to overdose after they bought pills that had a lethal amount of fentanyl in them. Not wanting anyone else to suffer the same fate, she picked up a case of Narcan from the Alano Club and began offering it to nearby bars. Some were receptive, others skeptical of someone who wasn’t part of a legitimate organization.
Now that she has the bona fides of Project RED, doors are continuing to open for Wirshup as well as the support of her peers who nominated her for the Skidmore Prize. The attention and recognition has been, she says, “an honor.”
“I definitely cried my eyes out,” she continued. “I thought this program was going to be small. I thought I was going to get Narcan into a dozen places. It’s bewildering how quickly it has grown. To have people recognize me not as a bartender who served them at some point, but as a person who has brought people Narcan and has trained people on how to save lives, it’s insane. I’m kind of out of good adjectives.” - Robert Ham
Skidmore Prizes are sponsored by Comcast