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An advocate finds her place

July 1, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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Laura elliott-engelMore than 35 years ago, Laura Elliott-Engel could have benefited from the very same services she has dedicated her career to in the state of New York. With little direction in life, Elliott-Engel-who is now one of the state's leading recovery advocates-found herself bouncing from college to college, her grades reflecting those of an honors student or a dropout, depending on the state of her disease.

“My college transcripts are a roadmap into my addiction,” she says. “I went to about four undergraduate schools in 10 years.”

Eventually, Elliott-Engel gave up on school and entered the working world, taking on an administrative role at a small business where she was able to “really use my inherent people skills.” But this change of pace did little to help her gain a sense of self, and her addiction ultimately rendered her unemployable.

Two years later, in 1975, Elliott-Engel entered treatment. After spending seven weeks at an inpatient facility, she moved into her parents' home, ready to get back to work. “I worked very hard at my recovery,” she says. “But I needed to establish to myself that I had some kind of competence.”

Passion discovered

While beginning her studies again-this time majoring in social work-Elliott-Engel also began substitute teaching at a local nonprofit agency focused on troubled youth. “Out of that, I really gained some sense of direction,” she says. “I learned what I was interested in, what I was good at.”

After completing her bachelor's degree in social work, Elliott-Engel was recruited by a small treatment clinic not far from her home in rural, upstate New York. Having just received a first-time grant, the clinic was looking for a counselor who would work with chemically dependent women in rural, isolated communities.

“Part of the reason why I was interested and why they thought I might be a good candidate was my own recovery,” says Elliott-Engel, who had been in recovery for five years by that time. “I think walking the walk and then working with others can complement each other.”

Excited to be “part of something that had never been done before,” Elliott-Engel committed herself to her new position. As a counselor, she helped women not only to realize their own potential for recovery, but also to “come out of their homes” and get involved in their communities.

Eventually, she worked her way up at the clinic, earning a master's degree in pastoral counseling along the way. She finally had found her passion, but difficult transitions would send Elliott-Engel down a familiar, but more challenging path.

A spiritual transition

In 2002, Elliott-Engel experienced what she calls “some significant life changes.” After 18 years of marriage, she and her husband divorced, and her two children were ready to head off to college. But rather than “revert to an old way of responding” to such emotional triggers, Elliott-Engel sought out a different kind of satisfaction: She applied to the vacant executive director position at the Council on Addiction Recovery Services, Inc. (CAReS) in Cattaraugus County, N.Y.

As the sole provider of chemical dependency treatment in a county of 87,000 residents, CAReS offers the full continuum of care as well as prevention, education and housing assistance services. Elliott-Engel was drawn to CAReS' residential treatment offerings-a level of care that her previous employer did not offer-as well as its focus on keeping families together by treating women and their children in a home purchased especially for this purpose.

“In a way, this seemed almost spiritual,” she says. “I had come into the field working to find and help women, and here was this place where they made it a commitment to actively recruit and then work with women with their children.”

After accepting the executive director position at CAReS, Elliott-Engel took an even bigger step in her career by transitioning from a countywide provider of addiction services to a statewide advocate for recovery. Two years ago, she helped to found Friends of Recovery-New York (FOR-NY), a representative, grassroots coalition that promotes policies and practices in support of recovery. She is currently the president of FOR-NY's board of directors, representing rural, upstate New York.

“Sometimes upstate New York gets left out of the conversation in other forums,” Elliott-Engel says. “But our board is representational of the width, breadth and length of a very large state.”

By partnering with other advocacy groups such as Faces and Voices of Recovery and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), as well as the state substance abuse agency, FOR-NY is working to break down stigma and give recovering individuals a place at the public policy table. Its first rally in February, held in Albany, attracted 300 attendees.

“Going from 15 or 20 of us screaming about this a couple of years ago to 300 people walking the halls of the Capitol and making appointments with legislators was pretty doggone cool,” Elliott-Engel says.

Addiction Professional 2010 July-August;8(4):64