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Columnist Julie Harrington: Supportive community at Northampton Recovery Center

  • Lynn Ferro, interim director of the Northampton Recovery Center, directs Stephen Milanovich as he moves a writing board at the center's new location at 2 Gleason Plaza on April 30. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Thursday, June 14, 2018

Walking into the Northampton Recovery Center, members are welcomed with open arms whether it is their first or 50th meeting.

For those struggling with substance abuse, finding a supportive community to be part of is essential to their recovery, say members of the center.

The opioid epidemic is a problem so widespread it has touched the lives and loved ones of too many — nearly half of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center — and the recovery center is one of the local organizations stepping in to provide help and support to those who need it.

I first visited the center for a University of Massachusetts class project this spring, and I met with some incredible people who felt they had benefited hugely from their time with the center. With my own personal experience of having a family member go through various treatment facilities and recovery programs, some far better than others, hearing such overwhelmingly positive things about the Northampton center was impactful and inspiring to me.

Robert Wronski, a peer coordinator and member at the center, is outspoken about what makes it a special place for someone in recovery.

“There was something magical about that first time I went to the NRC that I just kept coming back and I have only missed about two or three meetings in the past year,” Wronski said.

Wronski’s history with substance abuse began at a young age. He described how he started drinking when he was a teenager and his habits progressed and became problematic over the years until his 30s.

“I ended up going from drinking socially to being a solo drinker,” he said. “I lost a marriage, I lost my closest friend for some time, although he’s back in my life now. It was really difficult, and towards the end I got hooked on opioids as well. Prescription opioids, though not always my prescription.”

Wronski explained that the first time he went to the center he was struck by what made it different than meetings he had been to before.

“There were guys there from the jail that I had seen before at AA meetings that would sit in the back and never share, but at this meeting they were opening up so deeply and personally,” he said. “They were serious about their recovery and about not making the same mistakes … and that sincerity and honesty from a group I had seen be so closed in AA really struck me. This was a place they felt safe.” 

The center has undergone a transformative journey to become this inclusive environment, Wronski said. “There was a time where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to be part of the NRC because they weren’t so sure about who they wanted to welcome and who they didn’t want to welcome.”

He explained that there had been a fear of welcoming in people who were still active users because it could upset the safe recovery environment.

“Instead of just fighting about it, we decided to sit down together and write out a code of ethics … I’m so glad I stayed around to be part of that conversation because I would have missed that magical thing. We as a community grew and changed by working together,” Wronski said.

As the center’s community grows, the offerings for wellness activities do as well. Along with weekly recovery meetings, the center offers yoga, meditation, life skills classes, social events, family support groups and more.

Another aspect that sets the center apart is the focus on empowering its members. While Lynn Ferro, the interim director,  oversees the center, the advisory committee is made up of members and most of the groups and wellness activities are member-run.

“To feel like we have a voice and that it matters … we are not just attendants, we are all creating the NRC,” Wronski said. “It doesn’t matter if you have been here since the very first day, or if you’re there for the very first day today, you’re contributing to the NRC, which is really powerful.”

Despite the pervasiveness of substance abuse issues across the country, the stigma for people in recovery is still a harsh reality. The center has made it a priority to make people understand that there is nothing wrong with seeking help and working toward a better life.

Until the center moved to 2 Gleason Plaza on May 1, it had used space at the Edwards Church.

“Whenever I tell people to come to the Edwards Church ... they often go to the back door to go into the basement where AA meetings usually are, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, we are on the top floor like respectable people,’ ” Wronski said.

“We aren’t hiding in the basement anymore. We’re right up here on the main floor with windows and light … come into the front door and you’ll find us. We don’t need to hide, and that’s one of the powerful messages from the NRC,” he said.

Julie Harrington is a journalism student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who worked with the Northampton Recovery Center during the spring semester of her sophomore year.