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A catalyst for collaboration

November 1, 2008
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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An institute on a college campus unites groups around treatment and recovery

The types of system enhancements that can engage the recovery community and generate real progress in treatment and prevention outcomes require buy-in from many interests, from government to business to the provider and advocacy communities. Yet community leaders consistently wrestle with how to foster cooperative discussion and to overcome the traditional turf considerations that impede progress.

Leaders in Rhode Island believe they have identified an innovative mechanism that will allow for collaborative ventures in research, practice, and recovery support. A new academic institute on the campus of a public college appears to be encouraging an unprecedented level of community participation in recovery-focused initiatives.

“This is a neutral place in which to do this,” Sandra Puerini Del Sesto says of Rhode Island College (RIC) and the new Institute for Addiction Recovery that she directs. “RIC is not a competitor to any of these people; it has always been a collaborator.”

Leading organizers of the institute are seeing immediate results from establishing a neutral territory for collaborative efforts, as they have been able to recruit leaders in the private and public sectors and the addiction community to serve on the institute's community advisory board.

“The purpose of the institute is to provide a forum, to invite those who have an interest in recovery systems as well as to expose this subject to those who don't know yet that they're interested,” says Stephen Gumbley, MA, LCDP, who chaired the institute's steering committee and is associate director of the Addiction Technology Transfer Center of New England at Brown University.

Recovery support

The institute is one of 12 affiliate operations under the college's Center for Public Policy, which seeks to have an impact on numerous issues of importance to Rhode Islanders. The institute's initial benefactor, a prominent local business leader, got involved with the institute's formation because of difficulties he experienced in navigating the service system in the state, Del Sesto says.

A crucial and high-profile element in the institute's operations involves assisting to establish the first community recovery center site in the state. Organizers believe the Providence site, in a building that formerly housed a neighborhood movie theatre, will offer much-needed support for the recovery community and eventually will serve as a sort of learning laboratory for RIC students. The school's psychology department offers a bachelor of science degree in chemical dependency and addiction studies, and about 10 other departments offer some coursework in the addiction area.

A massive cleanup in September of the recovery center site, which had gone unused for some time, attracted 50 volunteers from the recovery community. The group and institute organizers paused in the middle of the day to conduct the first recovery meeting at the site, in what Gumbley described as an all-inclusive affair.

“People were telling their stories, and were saying this was a place they could come to in order to really share and to give back to the community,” Gumbley says.

Del Sesto has conducted 10 focus group sessions with members of the recovery community to gain a better understanding of how a community center can best serve their needs. The operation will be designed and managed by the recovery community. Del Sesto and Gumbley say individuals in recovery are looking for opportunities for social interaction, vocational assistance (not a minor consideration in a state with an 8.5% unemployment rate), and advice on how to negotiate the service system. Interestingly, these individuals also see opportunities to be of service as well as to be served.

“They're talking about recovery coaching, but both on the giving and the receiving end,” Gumbley says. “No one has asked them in the past to do these kinds of things.”

Besides the contribution of the local benefactor, the institute also received initial infrastructure support from the Rhode Island Foundation. Del Sesto brings a broad-based background in addiction to her role as director. She is a co-founder of several addiction-related organizations in the state, including the treatment agency CODAC and the prevention agency Initiatives for Human Development.

“What Sandra brings is a background in prevention, which gives us a broader perspective; strategic planning skills, which are important because we don't know what all this will look like; and her impeccable reputation,” Gumbley says.

Organizers hope the institute's diverse advisory board will be able to forge relationships with other service sectors such as the child welfare community to fulfill its major goals of bringing about institutional reform.

“We don't know what all of the ripples of this are going to be,” Del Sesto says.

Research agenda

Being that the institute is part of an academic environment, research is considered an important facet of its mission. Two RIC faculty members serve on the institute's steering committee, and Del Sesto envisions a variety of policy issues that could be explored through the institute. As one possible example, future research could examine what happens in families where parental substance use leads to the child welfare system's involvement, she says.

Applied research and evaluation is identified as one of five focus areas for the institute, along with the recovery center, public policy, workforce analysis and development, and curriculum development. The latter area involves unifying and strengthening the college's resources for the academic preparation of professionals in substance use treatment and related areas.