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How a U of M Extension program is guiding community-based addiction recovery efforts in Greater Minnesota

“Changemakers” retreats grew from community forums focused on the region’s addiction crisis and led by the U of M Extension’s Center for Community Vitality. 

Jenna Dickinson, shown with her daughter, earned a certification in trauma-informed yoga, a practice based on the hatha style of yoga that provides students with a safe, quiet, distraction-free space to connect with their body while moving through poses.
Jenna Dickinson, shown with her daughter, earned a certification in trauma-informed yoga, a practice based on the hatha style of yoga that provides students with a safe, quiet, distraction-free space to connect with their body while moving through poses.

After struggling for years to get her sobriety to stick, Jenna Dickinson discovered yoga. Way back in 2013, she’d gone to inpatient treatment for alcohol addiction, but had what she describes as “multiple” relapses. Four or five years later, after completing a second treatment program, Dickinson began to take her recovery seriously, regularly attending AA meetings and connecting with other people fighting addiction but, she said, “something was still missing for me.” 

To help herself find the strength needed to stay away from alcohol, Dickinson decided to turn her energy to yoga, focusing on developing a centered daily practice of gentle movement, breathing and focus. It worked. 

“Yoga allows me to connect my mind, body and soul,” Dickinson said. Thanks to yoga, she continued, “I’m so much more at peace and able to work my AA program and so much more capable of being successful and being able to live day to day.” 

Inspired by her own experience, Dickinson decided she wanted to bring what she’d discovered to other people in recovery. She quit her job as an elementary school teacher and decided to stay home to care for her two young daughters. On the side, she earned a certification in trauma-informed yoga, a practice based on the hatha style of yoga that provides students with a safe, quiet, distraction-free space to connect with their body while moving through poses. 

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Dickinson opened a studio and began offering classes in her hometown of Aurora, a small city in St. Louis County. One day, at the end of class, one of her students introduced her to a classmate who worked for the county. “She said to me,” Dickinson recalled, “‘There’s grant money if you want to be a recovery yoga teacher.’” 

Dickinson’s students told her that they were going to something called a Changemakers retreat, a gathering sponsored by University of Minnesota Extension for community members who help their neighbors recover from addiction through innovative programs. 

After exchanging contact information with her students, she got an email inviting her to take part. “At the retreat I said, ‘I’m already opening the studio and wanting to be the person who is helping people in the community,’” Dickinson recalled. 

Connections built at the Changemakers Retreat helped Dickinson expand her yoga practice and reach more people in need of support through their recovery journey. She became a certified mind-body recovery coach, and began teaching trauma-informed yoga to residents at a local treatment center. 

Because her yoga is focused on recovery, Dickinson said she works to help her students build a healthier outlook, one that moves their focus away from the source of their addiction and back to their more settled core.   

“With addiction, the stuff we are always telling ourselves is negative,” Dickinson said. With recovery yoga, she added, “We’re changing the mantras in our head from ‘My life is terrible,’ to something more positive, like, ‘I am peace. I am love. I am kind.’ I ask students to notice where their thoughts are, to add in that positive mantra. The more we keep doing these things, the more we can retrain our brain and change our lives.”  

Driven by community 

The Changemakers retreats were created with people like Dickinson in mind, said Mary Jo Katras, program leader at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development. 

The idea grew from community forums focused on the region’s addiction crisis, and were led by the Extension’s Center for Community Vitality. “Our communities are our experts,” Katras said. “We walk hand in hand with our community members to do this work.” 

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At the forums, Katras explained, “We asked, ‘Who’s interested in taking this to the next level and helping us understand what you need in your community to develop recovery capital?’ ‘How can we build the support that someone in recovery needs?’” 

From the forums, Extension staff recruited retreat participants, which were an opportunity for people already working in community-based recovery to come together, make connections and learn from one another, Katras said.

Mary Jo Katras
Mary Jo Katras
Retreat leaders also have access to grant-supported funds that can be used to help build participants’ projects.

Dickinson’s yoga practice, for example. “She used the money we gave her to help her develop the trauma-informed lens that we know is so helpful to people.” 

Laura Palombi, associate professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth College of Pharmacy, partners with Katras on the work. 

Before she and Katras launched their partnership, Palombi had been doing independent research on the impact of the opioid crisis in Greater Minnesota. “I became involved in a local substance-use coalition when I was in pharmacy school,” Palombi said. “I realized that there was a huge need for more engagement of pharmacists. I got invited into the Carlton County Drug Court team. It really opened my eyes.” 

Through the Drug Court team, Palombi worked on a survey of county residents in recovery. “We learned about gaps in care for people with a substance use disorder (SUD), how SUD starts, how people are treated poorly by the health care system, what are the barriers to recovery and the reasons people relapse,” she said. 

The work underscored Palombi’s commitment to building strong community connections. “The most important thing to my work, the only thing that makes it successful, are the partnerships with the community. I would never have been able to do it without our community partners. They guide everything.” 

Katras asked Palombi to meet with her team at Extension and explain her research. Inspired by Palombi’s presentation, Katras said that she and her colleagues did their own “environmental scan,” to determine the areas where they could help.  

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One way that Extension could help address the opioid crisis in the region was through grant funding. Katras learned about a call for proposals for a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant focused on rural health and safety education around opioids. 

“This was our call to action,” Katras said. Her program applied for the grants, and was awarded $350,000 over two years. A few weeks later, she heard that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) was offering USDA grant recipients an opportunity to apply for technical assistance grants. Extension applied and was awarded a second grant, of  $1.5 million over two years. 

Laura Palombi
Laura Palombi
“Suddenly we had this nice grant structure to do this work,” Katras said. “It allowed us to have that next level of funding so we could do the work in the way we wanted to.”

Palombi said that she’s pleased to be part of a project so directly centered on community needs and desires. “With rural and tribal nations, it is really important to spend time getting to know the community and their needs,” Palombi said. “The most important thing is not coming in with the ‘I know everything,’ attitude, because every community is unique. This approach has the potential for really making lasting change.” 

The Changemakers program is based in Aitkin, Itasca, Pine, and northern St. Louis counties, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. Katras said that she, Palombi and their colleagues are using the grant funds to, “grow the good and fill in the gaps.” 

The money, she continued, gives them power to make lasting change in the region:  “It allowed us to listen and learn from our communities. And that’s what we do best.” 

‘Leap of faith’

If there is anything Annette Tommila wants to take away from her own harrowing struggle with opioid addiction, it is her commitment to supporting other people as they find their way to recovery. 

Tommila said that her addiction came to an abrupt end after an interaction with law enforcement: “I was lucky I got arrested,” the Grand Rapids resident said. “I was at a point in my life where I was doing opiates of any kind, including heroin. When I would run out of opioids, I would do amphetamines to try to come down.”

After completing an intensive outpatient treatment program, Tommila committed to a life of recovery. She’s been sober for four and a half years. 

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She took a job working at First Call for Help of Itasca County, a nonprofit, community-based organization that provides free, confidential, non-judgmental listening services to residents of north-central Minnesota. She was part of the nonprofit’s Recovery Support Team, a group of trained professionals who respond to and support people in active addiction crises. 

“It’s like a crisis-response team but it is a crisis response team for recovery,” Tommila explained. “If someone has contact with law enforcement three or more times a month, law enforcement is able to refer to us. We intervene with these individuals in order to stop recidivism.” 

Annette Tommila
Annette Tommila
Recently, Tommila and her friend Cynthia Baade decided they wanted to take the skills they gained as certified peer recovery specialists and create Mission Restart, a nonprofit focused on supporting people through all aspects of recovery. Tommila is the organization’s vice president.

“Our long-term goal is to have a facility open where addicts can come and feel safe,” Tommila said. “We would like to have all kinds of meetings available during the day and evening along with skills training.” 

Tommila attended a Changemakers retreat, where she obtained a grant to help fund First Call For Help’ resource recovery support team.  

The next step for Mission Restart will be to rent a space where they will host recovery meetings and provide a safe, substance-free place for people to gather. The organization hosts a toll-free 24-7 support line, and maintains a website with resource information and links to local support organizations. 

“If anybody in our area or even outside of our area like Bemidji needs us, they can call,” Tommila said. “We have connections with people in Duluth. We are connecting with other outreach centers. We can link people to someone in their area.” 

Mission Restart couldn’t exist without the help of Extension and the university, Tommila said. She’s excited about starting a new nonprofit, and hopeful that she and her colleagues will be able to make a lasting difference in their community. 

“We’re so new to this,” Tommila said. “We’re taking a leap of faith and believing in ourselves. None of us has done this before. We want to push our dreams and build up higher and higher. I love being able to say at the end of the day that I helped people.”