Hampshire Hope: Northampton Recovery Center snags state funding for people in recovery

For the Gazette
Published: 11/26/2019 12:01:19 AM

The term “opioid epidemic” has become as American as apple pie in our nation’s lexicon. Here in western Massachusetts, communities have been hit hard by the crisis, with families grieving unthinkable losses. It seems most people know someone impacted. As a result, funding for opioid education, treatment, and prevention has increased; this concentrated community focus on solutions has also brought support for the peer recovery movement, specifically through recovery support centers funded by the state.

Treatment is a critical piece of the recovery continuum of care, offering a foothold to those in the deep throes of addiction. But treatment alone is not enough. Having a welcoming place for folks in early recovery to connect, heal and grow by participating and sharing with one another, can provide a solid foundation for lifelong recovery. Many people in recovery find they need support throughout their lives. Though recovery is an inside job, a supportive community is the key to success.

The Northampton Recovery Center — located at 2 Gleason Plaza, the 3-year-old hub for recovery downtown — was recently awarded one of eight new recovery support center contracts from the state Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance and Addiction Services (BSAS). At $400,000 a year for three years, this funding will cover the cost of relocating into larger quarters to provide peer-led support, as well as paid staff positions, supplies, and programs.

As a long-time employee and currently executive director at the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium, I’ve had a chance to witness the power of recovery support centers up close through the RECOVER Project in Greenfield, which is a program of the Consortium. The RECOVER Project, the first BSAS-funded recovery support center in the state in 2003, quickly became a model for similar centers in other areas, building on the long tradition of peer-to-peer recovery support, which relies on people being of service to others as a key to sobriety.

From its early years, the RECOVER Project has created conditions for a community that nurtures a sense of belonging, especially for those in early recovery. The approach of peers helping peers endures because those who have been on the path of recovery gain valuable wisdom from their experiences. The power of healing lies in offering connection and sharing that wisdom from one person to the next.

The momentum of the peer movement and the success of this model have propelled the Department of Public Health to expand this form of recovery support. Today there are 26 state-funded recovery support centers in Massachusetts. After being launched by the Northwestern district attorney’s office, the NRC two years ago became a program of the Consortium. We have also recently begun working closely with a very committed group in Ware to establish a much-needed peer recovery support in that region.

Often heard in recovery circles is the notion that the opposite of addiction is not abstinence – it is connection. Very different than a traditional treatment focus in which the power tends to rest with the helper or clinician to treat the ailment/addiction, recovery support centers put the power in the hands of the people using the center. Support center members become the decision-makers. Members not only form and participate in committees, but they also run them. When paid jobs open up, they are often filled by active members of the center. This amplifies their leadership potential. There is also an important role for volunteer peer leaders who facilitate community meetings and serve as ambassadors for the recovery support center in sharing hopeful messages about recovery.

I remember visiting the RECOVER Project in Greenfield after it moved from an office building to a downtown storefront. I felt a little like I used to feel going to my childhood friend’s home for dinner, complete with the inviting smells of something yummy cooking on the stove and everyone wanting to hear what I had been up to. At all state-funded recovery support centers, kitchens are a requirement – we all know how much cooking together and sharing food connects people. I’ve seen donations of food turn into scrumptious meals – and conversations emerge about family recipes. I recall a snow day last year when some chicken and pasta made for the best soup for the 30 or so community members who came in that afternoon – one person grabbed a shovel to clear the sidewalk, another said they’d walk to a nearby market to grab an onion, someone picked up a guitar and started playing while others chatted on a nearby couch. When I walk into the RECOVER Project or the Northampton Recovery Center, I count on being welcomed with a smile and asked to stay awhile. It’s a place people can go to talk or listen, or some of both. A welcome board lists what activities are scheduled (such as yoga or a writing group.) There is room to take some quiet time to talk with someone about housing resources or the myriad ways to get involved.

Visitors to recovery support centers may find themselves offering ideas, signing up for tasks and becoming a part of something – but there’s no pressure to participate. On the wall is typically a code of ethics, mutually agreed upon standards to guide how people in community engage. For example, a key value is the recognition that for many people relapse is a part of recovery, and recovery centers welcome back those who are struggling; another value is the idea that no single path of recovery is recommended, but an intentional focus to support multiple pathways to recovery.

So what does a recovery support center offer our community? I believe it offers what so many of us crave. Whether struggling with addiction or not, humans need connection, hope and a sense of belonging. Regardless of how a person’s path led them to the experience of addiction, it is their lived experience, combined with a sense of connection, hope and belonging that create conditions which lead to recovery. And that is where the power lies – in the recovery community’s ability to offer this support to one another in ways that no one else can.

Kristel Applebee is executive director of the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium, which is part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s health department. Members of the coalition contribute to a monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.

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