Meet the Recovery Coaches Taking On the Heroin Crisis in N.H.'s Largest City

Jun 8, 2016

In Manchester, more than 100 people died of overdoses last year.

Despite those grim numbers, it’s a surprisingly positive atmosphere on a Thursday night at Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, a substance abuse recovery center in the heart of New Hampshire’s largest city.

  The walls are covered with messages of encouragement and support.

“You can always tell when somebody comes in," says Kelly Riley, the center's recovery coach supervisor. "People say, ‘Hey, you having a bad day? What’s up?’ They get you out of it. Your other peers get you out of that.”

James Holloway

There are about 20 paid coaches on staff here, along with another roughly 15 volunteers. There’s a rotation, so there’s always at least one coach on call for those who come through the door or to respond to calls from out in the community.

One of the first calls of the night comes from someone’ looking for help just a few blocks down the street at the city’s Central Fire Station:

'We've all done those things...steal, lie, cheat to get what we needed. So it's nice to be able to share that with somebody and say hey, you don't have to feel alone because we've all been there, we've all done that.'

“We, no matter what, as recovery coaches, we walk over there and get them. So we’re going to take a walk over there,” Riley says.

She steps out into a city that’s been ravaged by the heroin and opioid addiction crisis. Walking along Pine Street, Riley explains this particular call is part of a new program – Operation Safe Station.

“You can go to any fire station and go there and ask for help,” Riley tells me. “We’ve had at least 70 calls; not everyone has ended up with us. But we’ve kept several people. So as you can see, the ambulance is right there. This person has either overdosed or come close to overdose."

There’s an EMT waiting outside as she walks up to the fire station.

Riley explains her plan.

“We’ll bring him back and talk to him over there, start seeing what’s going on, how you doing, what’s your life like, what are you addicted to. OK, you stay here, I’ll go talk to him, see what’s going on…"

A few minutes later, she comes back out with a man in his early twenties; he’s wearing a tattered black t-shirt and jeans, and carrying his belongings in a duffel bag.

Listening to Riley talk to him, it becomes clear he’s been to the recovery center before.

“I remember you, I remember seeing you. You know, we can get you on the path. Just knowing that you just went there, you gotta feel a little bit better because you’re doing something for yourself.”

Walking back, the man opens up about his 1-year-old daughter. He wants to get better for her, he says, but he’s never been able to admit he needed help. 

“Well, you’ll meet 100 other people who are the same way," Riley tells him. "It’s hard to ask for help.”

Back at the recovery center, Riley gets him settled in:

"I’m going to put you right over here. This is what we call the little cube. I’m going to get one of the other coaches. So just get comfortable. There’s coffee right there if you want a cup of coffee…”

He meets with a coach and they start mapping out a recovery plan.

The center is filling up quickly for tonight’s heroin anonymous meeting; looking around, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the coaches and the members.

And there’s a reason for that.

Like many coaches here, James Holloway was once an addict. It wasn’t that long ago he was in the same place as those he’s now helping.

"We’ve all done those things – steal, lie, cheat – to get what we needed. So it’s nice to be able to share that with somebody and say hey, you don’t have to feel alone because we’ve all been there, we’ve all done that.”

Now that he’s clean, Holloway is helping others as a coach, but he’s also reconnected with his family and is able to spend the weekends with his daughters.

“The blessings that have come out of it are just like tenfold, compared to my life before,” he says.

Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

It’s a familiar story here.

David Cote has been in long-term recovery for 25 years; he’s another recovery coach on staff.

“To be able to say been there, done that, it’s a very powerful tool. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wasn’t able to share my story,” Cote says.

“The rule here is eighty/twenty. So we do 20 percent, and the member does 80 percent. So I’ll put them in front of phone, I will give them phone numbers, but for the most part, they’re the ones doing the calling.”

But finding treatment isn’t always easy; many of the people coming in don’t have insurance.

“Obviously, we want to help people when they need it, and that window of opportunity is very narrow. So if we can get them on a wait list and keep them involved and keep them active, that keeps that window open that much longer,” Cote says.

And the need keeps growing. 

Video: Watch Kelly Riley and James Holloway talk about their experiences at Hope for N.H. Recovery

Hope on the Front Lines: Hope for N.H. Recovery from New Hampshire Public Radio on Vimeo.

When the center first opened last summer, a few hundred people would show up in a month. Now it’s upwards of 2,000.

“I have seen a lot more people come in, and a lot of young people come in, which is amazing because I figure if someone can come in at 20 years old or 25 years old and find recovery, how many years of misery have we avoided for them or have they avoided for themselves?”

Later, I meet coach Bryan Patriquin. He’s been in recovery for about five  years.

“Most people don’t know what a recovery coach is. It’s just a term everyone throws around because that’s really what we do. We help coach, we encourage, we empower, we empathize with the individual who’s seeking help.”

In the back of the center, there’s a room called Amber’s Place. It’s a space in the building where members can stay while waiting to get into treatment.

'I figure if someone can come in at 20 years old or 25 years old and find recovery, how many years of misery have we avoided for them or have they avoided for themselves?'

Recovery coach supervisor Kelly Riley walks me through. There are mattresses are spread out across the floor; and it’s where the man we picked up earlier in the evening will spend the night.

“We have capacity for 16, and we were very close to that the day before yesterday. We had eight pickups, eight people come in."

"We like to get you out between 3-5 days," she added.

People are free to go – some leave, sneaking out the back door – but for those who stay, there’s always someone here to talk to.

“Because we don’t have any kind of funding, we rely on people to give their time to sit and listen to someone," Riley says. "You see so much of that. People just want to talk to somebody who’s not going to judge them.”

Kelly Riley and James Holloway

And, like others here, Riley is no stranger to addiction.

She’s in recovery, and lost her son to a heroin overdose.

“When I talk about it – and I talk about it a lot – I can get very emotional because it’s a very emotional thing. We’re so used to not showing our emotions. And people will be like, wow, I know what that feels like.”

Recovery coaching isn’t for everyone. Many get burned out.

David Cote, one of the coaches, says you’ve just got to focus on the small victories.

“It really is about, ‘I got somebody a phone number to a treatment center and he got on a wait list.' That’s something he didn’t have when he came in. Or I found somebody a safe place to live for the night."

And there’s good news for the center. This summer, it will move into a larger space in a former furniture building in the city, where there will be more beds and housing for those in recovery.