“One day, I happened to be sitting next to the behavioral health director for the Department of Corrections. I said, ‘I think we have something that could be really beneficial for you,’” said Jode Freyholtz-London, founder and CEO of Wellness in the Woods, a nonprofit in central Minnesota working to improve access to mental health care and substance use recovery services.
The something Freyholtz-London was referring to was her organization’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) training program, a nationally recognized prevention and wellness process that Wellness in the Woods staff had been teaching to peers in recovery through special workshops. She told her fellow Mental Health Advisory Council member about the workshops, and a partnership grew, eventually becoming Hope on Purpose, a service providing WRAP trainings to people incarcerated in jails and prisons across the state of Minnesota.
Wellness in the Woods’ Hope on Purpose contract with the Department of Corrections covers four training sessions a year held at different corrections facilities around the state. The program’s leaders, Bert Brandt and Ashley Wright, are both certified peer recovery support specialists with personal histories in addiction and incarceration and mental illness.
Freyholtz-London said that much of Hope on Purpose’s success can be credited to Brandt and Wright’s shared life experiences with participants.
“We know that many individuals who are incarcerated are dealing with mental health or substance-use issues,” Freyholtz-London said. When Hope on Purpose was created, she explained, “It was important for us to have the individuals doing peer support have a background in incarceration, mental health and chemical health so that they could go into these places and be able to say, ‘I’ve been where you are and here I am now. If I can do it, you can do it, too.’”
Wright, who has also done specialized training through Minnesota Recovery Connection for peer support in forensics, has been co-facilitating the trainings for just under a year. She said she was inspired to become a certified peer recovery specialist after receiving the same kind of support when she was in the throes of addiction.
Recently, Wright and I spoke about her work with the Hope on Purpose program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: Why do you think it is important to bring Hope on Purpose and WRAP to Minnesota prisons?
Ashley Wright: It is so important to have peer support in corrections. It is such a great place to do it: With the high rates of recidivism, you often see people doing their time, getting out and then going right back in to the same problem behaviors. Having someone who has the same lived experience and can offer the support and motivation to go through tough times while a person is incarcerated is really important to helping strengthen people in their recovery journey. It can work out so well. It can make a huge impact.
MP: How did you come to be a peer recovery support specialist?
AW: I’ve been incarcerated several times due to my addiction. Peer support got introduced to me several years ago when I was struggling with addiction and in a very dark place. One of my support workers suggested to me that this was something I might want to look into. I met my first peer support specialist when I was in the psychiatric unit of a hospital.
A seed was planted when I was in treatment my second or third time. I met a peer support specialist there who really supported me. I knew then I wanted to go back someday and support others. I didn’t know I was going to be supporting incarcerated people, but it was something that I thought I’d like to do.
MP: Can you tell me more about how the Hope on Purpose program works?
AW: We bring peer support to Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities and county jails using a program called WRAP, or Wellness Recovery Action Plan. My partner Bert Brandt and I hold WRAP trainings for inmates in these facilities. Each class has around 15 people. The program lasts for 15 hours. We generally do that over five three-hour trainings for five consecutive days. During the trainings we put our WRAP programs together as a unit.
So far in 2023, Bert Brandt and I have been to three prisons. Bert is also a person with lived experience with incarceration. And I also did a WRAP program with another female peer support specialist at the Shakopee women’s prison. Bert and I will be starting a training at Moose Lake. That will be our fourth session. I am going to be doing four trainings this year and five in 2024.
MP: What does a typical WRAP program look like?
AW: First, typically a couple weeks before we start the training, Bert and I go to a prison for a meet-and-greet. We pitch the program to inmates who have been chosen for it. We see if they are interested, give them an idea of what it would be like. We talk about what a WRAP plan entails. Then, when the class begins, we go through each section of the WRAP plan as a group and we call out answers. We share our stories and break the ice as we go into the meat of putting a WRAP plan together.
There’s a clear format to the WRAP program. Participants all get their own handbooks. One facilitator will lead the group and be more of the speaker. That’s usually Bert. I typically take the scribe position, where we have big post-it notes that we hang on the wall and we call out all of our answers together and write them down. Then everybody will go with their ideas and we write them up in our booklets and we share them with each other.
A WRAP plan is a personal recovery plan of wellness for anyone who wants to make a positive change in the way they feel and react to life. Developing a WRAP plan helps participants focus on how they want to change their life.
MP: What are some of the best experiences you’ve had facilitating Hope on Purpose trainings?
AW: Maybe Lino Lakes [Correctional Facility] stood out. They seem to have a lot of great programs going on there. The people in the class participated a lot. A lot of them hoped to be peer support specialists someday. And at the women’s prison at Shakopee, there was a different connection. There were all ladies participating and two female facilitators. They were really into the group.
In general, it seems like everyone who comes to this class really wants better themselves. They don’t want to go back to prison. It’s been a great experience so far.
MP: You’ve been sober for four years now. What inspired you to take that step and make it last?
AW: What changed in my life was what I consider my rock bottom. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’d lost my kids to the system. I was homeless. I had nowhere to go but up. I met people like a peer specialist who sparked some hope in me that I could live my life in a healthy way and I was capable of more than how I was living at that time.
MP: In your role at Hope on Purpose, you get to spark hope in other people. Do you think of yourself as a role model?
AW: It does feel really good to be doing this work. It helps me just as much as it helps the participants. It helps my recovery. People inspire me to stay on the path. Getting to know people and getting to know their stories and really hearing from them is so important to our well-being. This journey, this support, this mutuality we have together is just beautiful.
Through my work I’ve grown to understand that no one person is better than the other. It’s just that I am further along in my journey.
MP: How’s the rest of your life now? Have you been reunited with your children?
AW: I had a lot of really, really dark moments and had a lot of moments where I wanted to end my life because I thought it wasn’t worth trying to get better or I wasn’t any good for my kids. Doing this work has done such huge, positive things in my life.
Even in the last six months this work has allowed me to come off social security/disability and provide for my kids. I’ve been reunified with my son for about three years now. I have shared custody of my daughter with her dad. She comes for visits for extended periods of time. She was here for the summer and she comes on weekends.
Knowing what I do today and where I am is something I never dreamed of for myself.
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