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Minnesota Recovery Corps pilots ‘people power’ approach to tackling the addiction crisis

For many people, an important part of recovery from addiction is giving back to the community through volunteer service.

Minnesota Recovery Corps
Minnesota Recovery Corps volunteers, from left: Alex Dobbins, Peter Solberg, Sarah McVicar, Mike Linehan, Valerie Cappiello, and Valerie Gustafson.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Recovery Corps

For many people, an important part of recovery from addiction is giving back to the community through volunteer service.

When Valerie Gustafson, a St. Paul resident with “10 years of freedom from alcohol and guaranteed bad decisions,” under her belt, heard that Minnesota Recovery Corps, a new offshoot of the national service organization AmeriCorps, was looking for volunteers to help people navigate their own recoveries, she put her life on hold and signed up.

The move made perfect sense: In 2017, after her youngest child graduated from high school, Gustafson thought the time was right to turn her focus to serving others. She’d struggled with alcoholism for years, sometimes at the expense of her two children, until a 2008 DWI forced her to take stock of her life and begin the long, painful process of recovery.

With nine years of sobriety under her belt, Gustafson decided to change careers and train to become a certified recovery coach through Minnesota Recovery Connection (MRC). During her training, she learned that the federal government had chosen Minnesota to pilot a national Recovery Corps program. The new program would be run much like AmeriCorps, with teams of volunteer workers (with small stipends for housing and education) deployed across the Twin Cities, harnessing “people power” to address the addiction crisis head on.

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Recovery Corps volunteers would be trained to serve as recovery navigators, assigned to help people emerging from addiction-treatment programs or self-initiated sobriety to navigate a new, substance-free world.

“I was thinking about what I could do with the rest of my life,” Gustafson said. “I’m a person in long-term recovery, and I wanted to give back. Recovery Corps felt like the perfect opportunity to use my recovery coach training.”

Valerie Gustafson
Valerie Gustafson
Signing up for a year of work paid with a biweekly living allowance of $600 (plus health insurance, an education award, tuition forbearance and a $2,000 annual housing stipend) was going to take some sacrifice, Gustafson allowed, but she didn’t let finances limit her dreams.

“I knew I would have to make changes in order to manage being a part of Recovery Corps,” she said. “I did those things. It was worth it.”

The experience felt so worth it that in 2018, Gustafson signed up for an additional year of Recovery Corps service. She’s now a program assistant, working with MORe Corps, Minnesota’s opioid response program.

“This feels like what I should be doing right now,” Gustafson said. “It’s giving back, making a difference, making up for the years I lost to addiction.”

Domestic Peace Corps

A network of national service programs created in 1993 by the Clinton administration as part of the National and Community Service Trust Act, AmeriCorps now has some 80,000 volunteers working full- or part-time in intensive service at schools, public agencies and housing programs like Habitat for Humanity. In 2018, in response to the national addiction crisis, AmeriCorps launched Recovery Corps, naming Minnesota as a pilot state tasked with defining and building the program before expanding it to the rest of the nation.

Audrey Suker, CEO for ServeMinnesota, the agency tasked with administering and funding AmeriCorps programs in the state, said that three years ago federal funders asked her organization to imagine new ways their volunteers could address the problem of addiction.

“The Corporation for National and Community Service asked us to think intentionally about what we could do to harness the people power of AmeriCorps to help states address the opioid epidemic,” Suker said.

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This was a new task for AmeriCorps volunteers.

“When I first heard that our federal parent organization wanted us to look at how we could be responsive to the opioid epidemic, I didn’t have an immediate vision of what that would look like,” Suker said. Then ServeMinnesota staff discussed ways that they could use existing expertise built over the course of their history and develop a program focused on promoting addiction recovery.

“We’ve worked to marry the people power of AmeriCorps with the with research about how results are achieved,” Suker said. “Our initial work has been in the education sphere. We developed a reading program that gives more people power to the education system and has shown clear results.”

ServeMinnesota decided to take that approach with Recovery Corps. They surveyed AmeriCorps members to find out if they were in addiction recovery, and if so, to find out what that experience meant to them.

“We heard powerful stories from individual AmeriCorps volunteers,” Suker said. “They told us that their work with our organization gave them a sense of purpose and helps them get back on a career trajectory.”

Audrey Suker
Minnesota Recovery Corps
Audrey Suker
Recovery Corps started small, with just 15 navigators, but Suker said that she believes that is just the beginning. She likes to compare it to the state’s successful AmeriCorps reading program: “In 2003 we had just 24 AmeriCorps members working in the reading program in Minnesota. Now we have about 1,200.”

Suker says that since Minnesota Recovery Corps was formed last year, she sees clear potential for the program’s expansion. “The deeper we get into it the more I can see the potential that exists of aligning the program with people who want to give a year of their life to serving others in need.”

One new idea is training and deploying volunteers to deliver an addiction-awareness curriculum in K-12 schools.

“We want to learn more about how that curriculum is delivered on the ground,” Suker said. Perhaps our AmeriCorps volunteers could teach that curriculum in the schools they already work in.” In Minnesota, she added, more than 1,000 AmeriCorps members already work in schools. If all school AmeriCorps volunteers were trained to deliver the curriculum to students, they could make a significant impact in the state.

“That would be an example of people power in action,” Suker said.

Suker has high hopes for the future of the program. She said that so far Minnesota Recovery Corps has had “excellent support from the federal government,” combined with significant state support. Last year, funding for the program was included in the state’s budget, but was vetoed at the last minute. She hopes things will look different in 2019. “We will have a legislative ask again this session,” she said.

Pay it forward

Like Gustafson, Peter Solberg, a Minnesota Recovery Corps navigator assigned to the state Department of Corrections, sees his service as a way of giving back to the community after years of struggling with addiction and its aftermath.

Two and a half years into his recovery, Solberg was volunteering at MRC when he heard about jobs being offered by Recovery Corps.

“I thought about it long and hard,” he said. “At that time I was thinking about entering the job market, and this work wasn’t going to pay a living wage. But I really liked what they were doing and I decided to give it a go.”

For Solberg, deciding to give Recovery Corps a go meant that he could see that he’d gain more than money from his service.

“I’m not in it for the money,” Solberg said, adding that he plans to use his academic benefits to finance a return to school to become a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. “With that and this experience on my résumé I’m eventually going to go into the job force and get a job in my field as a recovery coach.”

Solberg, who’d struggled with addiction for years and even spent short periods of time in jail for misdemeanors, was ready to take another approach to his life. He’d already completed MRC’s recovery coach training, a skill that made him a perfect candidate to be a Recovery Corps navigator. He held that position for a year at MRC, supporting individuals through their recovery without advocating for any one approach.

“I’m an AA guy, but I don’t force that on anyone,” he said. That’s the approach that recovery coaches are trained to take. “I try to find what works for them and help them to be successful with that pathway.”

There are many approaches to achieving sobriety, and Recovery Corps coaches work to support their peers in choosing the one that works best for them.

“I want to help them find some mode of recovery, be that yoga, nutrition, Buddhism, whatever, as long as they’re focused on it and it is filling the hole that is left from their abuse,” Solberg said. “If it helps them, I am going to be supporting it.”

‘Trying to find hope’

Like Gustafson, Solberg signed up for a second year of Recovery Corps service. He’s now assigned to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, working with, he explained, “guys who are in the program and ready to re-enter society but still have chemical dependency issues.” This is not an uncommon situation for people coming out of incarceration, Solberg added: “About 94 percent of the people who are re-entering have chemical dependency issues. The guys I work with are all high-risk recidivists.”

As a navigator, Solberg explained that he tries to help his clients, or peers, in recovery speak, negotiate change in their lives and uncover feelings of hope where they see nothing but hopelessness.

“I’m trying to find hope for them,” Solberg said. “What these guys are missing in their lives and the reason they keep coming back to the system is that they don’t have hope, period.” Lack of education, poverty and systemic racism are big factors in Soberg’s clients’ addiction, but until they can envision a future free of addiction, they will never achieve sobriety.

To help his clients find hope, Solberg works with them to dig deep inside themselves until they find it. “I go back to their childhood and we talk about their dreams and the things that got them excited,” he said. “Suddenly you have an individual who has cracked open the door and can see the light on the other side.”

Gustafson found her own source of hope when she was in the acute phase of her recovery and she met a woman who became her mentor in sobriety. “She was always there for me,” Gustafson said. “She was this amazing example of how to live in recovery and be happy.”

Seeing that another person could find happiness in sobriety offered Gustafson hope for her own future. She tries to bring that approach to the individuals she supports through Recovery Corps. If change is ever going to happen, for individuals or for society, she believes, we all must hope for a future where change is possible.

“My big motivator is to pass that gift of hope and possibility on to others,” Gustafson said. “I wanted to be more open in my recovery and I want to help others in their recovery.”

Because Gustafson considers addiction to be a disease like cancer, she knows that no one approach will help everyone find a cure. She’s learned to bring that attitude into all aspects of her work, and she believes that that approach will help Minnesota Recovery Corps as it expands to address the addiction crisis statewide.

“I’m a coach,” Gustafson said, “someone who is versed in connecting a person with resources that will help them live their new, sober life.”

It’s not a one-size-fits-all job, she added. But that’s where the people power comes in. “With many people looking at the problem from many angles, change is possible.”