At Recovery Coach Academy, Learning to Help Others Overcome Addiction

Jun 7, 2016

One way that people are trying to help make a difference in New Hampshire's epidemic of addiction is through recovery coaching, a peer-support model that's gaining momentum in the state.

Coaches support those in recovery by helping access treatment and other resources, like finding a job and a safe place to live as they try to get clean.

  About 40 people recently gathered for a Recovery Coach Academy in a hotel conference room in Concord.

Everyone here wants to help:

“My name is Kathie Saari, I’m from New Ipswich, New Hampshire and I pastor a church there.”

“Dave Simpson, full-time firefighter/EMT with the town of Pittsfield.”

“I’m Melissa O’Brien, and I’m from Nashua, New Hampshire. I want to jump on that bandwagon to really learn how to combat this epidemic.”

'This is an amazing person, someone who had some much to give and love. And he's gone...I really just want to know what could have stopped it because it's a waste.'

But perhaps no one in the room is feeling a sense of urgency like Kyle MacDonald of Franklin.

“It’s unfortunate. I actually had a friend pass away just last night of an overdose. I got home after going to a recovery meeting, and I come to find out my buddy’s passed away," he says, just before the day's training gets underway. "This is an amazing person, someone who had some much to give and love. And he’s gone. And we’re losing people like that every day.”

“I really just want to know what could have stopped it because it’s a waste," MacDonald adds.

Like many here, MacDonald is in recovery himself and he’s taking this training as a way to help others who want to get clean.

“I can’t predict who or what I’m going to do with it. All I know is that this is something I feel that I need to do. I can’t really explain it better than that. It’s something that I need to do. And no matter what that looks like, I want my hand to be there for someone who wants to grab it.”

That's a common theme among those who want to become coaches, says Cheryle Pacapelli is Director of Community Engagement for New Futures, an advocacy organization that has trained more than 200 coaches in the last year.

"There are so many people who want to do something to help and this is kind of a way to figure out how can I be a part of the solution," she said. “We’re seeing family members, people who have lost children, or brothers or sisters."

Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

They’re seeing clergymen, EMTs, police officers, and even those on the other side of the law.

Ginger Ross with the New Hampshire Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors Association shows me a letter she got from an inmate at the Concord state prison.

“He wrote me this passionate letter and he indicates that he’s six months sober and he recognizes the value in recovery. When he gets out in 18 months, he wants to be part of the recovery community to help others.”

Recovery coaches are not licensed by the state and do not provide clinical services.

This week-long training costs $100, and, Ross explains, it can be a starting point for those looking to get into the professional field.

“As a recovery coach, they will receive 30 credit hours that they can use toward their licensure of either a CRSW, which is Certified Recovery Support Worker, or if they’re pursuing a career towards licensed alcohol and drug counselor, they can use those credits towards that.”

Jim Wuelfing runs the recovery coach training in Concord.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

And it’s not just New Hampshire where recovery coaching is growing, says Jim Wuelfing. He’s running the training, and helped write the academy’s curriculum.

“Universally, we understand that treatment works, but what we haven’t done that well as a society is support early recovery And that’s why you see the revolving door, both in treatment and in criminal justice. Recovery services are really growing everywhere.”

As the morning gets underway, there’s an open discussion with the class; the conversation veers into topics like ethics and personal biases.

Many in the room open up about their fears of getting emotionally invested in their subject’s recovery.

“I mean, how do you not take it personally if you’re working with someone and they just start spiraling into self-destruction?” asks one woman.

The answer? Avoid the expectation that your help will be received.

“The whole point of recovery coaching isn’t I’m right and they’re wrong. It is I’m meeting them where they’re at," Wuelfing says. "To put your love and your compassion and whatever resources you have to share with your recovery on your table. Whatever the person does with that is up to them, it’s not up to us.”

The walls in the rooms are covered with easel paper from brainstorming sessions held during the week.

The tables are covered with cans of Play-Doh and bite-size candy; Kathie Saari, the pastor from New Ipswich, says the mood is often light.

“Never a dull moment in this class. There’s skits and things to help you get into the mode of learning and keep it there and retain what you’re learning. Amazing class. I highly recommend it for anybody.”

And everyone here has a different plan for what they want to do with this training.

Saari runs support groups out of her church, and plans to bring what she’s learned back there. 

Kathie Saari, a pastor from New Ipswich, takes notes during the recovery coach training
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

Dave Simpson, the firefighter and EMT from Pittsfield, says he’s here to learn how to help those who’ve hit rock bottom get on a path toward recovery.

“You know, studies suggest that within 24 hours of an overdose is when people are most open to help. And we’re there minute one.”

He says taking this class has opened his eyes.

“I think my ‘aha’ moment so to speak was speaking with my fellow classmates. In this class, the majority are people in active recovery. And to hear their stories, it’s just amazing how strong these individuals are.”

One of his classmates in recovery is Carolee Longley is Northfield.

“I’ve been one of the anonymous people that has been out there for almost 28 years being clean and sober behind the scenes.”

She sees the training as the start of her path toward working in the recovery field.

“We’re losing a generation. This is wiping out a generation. I have students I used to work with and some of them aren’t here anymore. These kids are dying way too soon. So I feel a personal responsibility to try do something about the heroin epidemic.”

And others, like Emily Duff from Lebanon, are here to help family members dealing with addiction.

She’s planning to bring back what she’s learned to the Upper Valley, where she says resources are scarce for those who need help recovering from addiction.

“I think it’s maybe lack of funding. A lot of people don’t want to deal with it. I don’t think a lot of people want to face that there is an issue. But it’s out there and we need the help.”