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Recruiting an army of advocates

June 16, 2008
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Patty McCarthy has come to learn that building a recovery movement closely resembles building a recovery. Each event unfolds one increment at a time.

Director of the recovery organization Friends of Recovery Vermont since 2003, McCarthy is not accustomed to making pitches to prospective advocacy leaders in front of overflow crowds. Recruitment in her rural state will more likely occur quietly over a cup of coffee.

“Our organizational efforts have to be one-on-one here,” says McCarthy, 41, who has been in recovery for more than 18 years. Yet out of such modest efforts have come impressive numbers: a network of 1,400 contacts through the statewide organization's online database.

McCarthy's work now encompasses state, regional, and national advocacy pursuits. Besides her directing Friends of Recovery Vermont, she is active in the regional New England Alliance for Recovery and in January began serving on the 21-member board of the national Faces and Voices of Recovery.

“I see all of this as tied to my recovery, but it doesn't mean this is what will sustain my recovery,” McCarthy says. “It certainly is nice to be associated with so many great people.”

Building toward success

McCarthy was raised in New Jersey and first entered treatment for alcohol use at age 17. She would go into treatment on three separate occasions before turning 18, but didn't stop drinking until the age of 23.

“But my philosophy about this is that the treatment still worked,” she says.

About three years after getting sober, McCarthy began attending some workshops and other meetings on treatment and recovery subjects, and this set the stage for her involvement in the recovery advocacy community. She became a member of Friends of Recovery Vermont before taking over the directorship five years into the organization's existence. The Vermont organization originated from a former state substance abuse agency director's push for allies who could go to the legislature and ask for support for treatment initiatives. The Vermont Association for Mental Health serves as the organization's host agency.

“It was a great feeling to be part of something—an organization willing to speak up for people's needs,” McCarthy says.

She does not believe that a certain “type” of person in recovery makes an ideal advocate. The finding of one's passion post-recovery is a highly personal journey, she says. In addition, it is not required that everyone who joins the cause have the same perspectives on how to achieve results in the policy arena.

“It's just a person who has had a quality, successful recovery,” she says. “They may have other needs to take care of at first, such as school, legal matters, or family needs, but then they're ready.”

Multifaceted mission

The Web site of Friends of Recovery Vermont (http://www.friendsofrecoveryvt.org) makes it clear that giving the recovering community a place at the policy table is central to the organization's mission. “Many funding decisions, concerning issues of education, job training, employment, child protective services, the juvenile and criminal justice systems and treatment have not included the voices and opinions of recovering individuals and their families,” states an issues summary on the site.

Now in its second decade of operation, Friends of Recovery Vermont is showing that it has become a more seasoned organization. This year, for the first time, the organization formally defined a set of legislative priorities for the year. In addition, the group has initiated a paid membership structure for the first time.

Other goals of the group include the establishment of a formal consumer advisory board to offer guidance to the single state agency for substance use services.

But McCarthy is quick to add that for both the local organization and for the regional and national groups to which she belongs, some of the most important tasks still revolve around the simple act of celebrating individuals' recovery. “Telling and sharing stories on a public level is very important,” she says, as it gives people in recovery a voice and brings recovery's possibilities to light for the public.

She has seen that focus maintained even as groups such as Faces and Voices of Recovery have become immersed in major policy discussions over issues such as insurance parity. “I don't think Faces and Voices will ever stray very far from that. There's still that sense of celebrating and honoring recovery,” McCarthy says.

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