In his role as an addiction counselor, David Stoecker figures he can have an impact on possibly around 100 people a year. As director of the community organization Better Life in Recovery (BLIR) in Springfield, Mo., Stoecker is looking to influence the lives and thoughts of thousands.
The community events that BLIR sponsors might seem modest when looked at in isolation, but Stoecker sees them as building local traditions and putting a public face on recovery. Maybe a river cleanup event will strengthen a recovering person's resolve to continue to give back in her daily life. Maybe seeing an elected leader throw out the first pitch before hundreds of recovering individuals at a ceremony preceding a minor-league baseball game will give a fan in the stands some pause to think about how substance abuse affects his world.
“The idea for BLIR started on a bike ride with my wife,” recalls Stoecker, 42. “I felt that I wasn't doing enough, but I wasn't sure what to do.”
He started the effort four years ago, around a year into his own recovery. “I was kind of letting things come to me at first,” he says. He knows exactly the moment when it became clear that he needed to turn up the intensity on his work in recovery advocacy: It happened when he read online comments posted by ordinary citizens reacting to the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“They disgusted me,” Stoecker says of the postings. “People were saying things like, 'See, these people never get better,' and 'Who cares? It's just another junkie.'”
Stoecker has recruited subcommittees to work on extending BLIR's mission, which its website describes as an effort “to deal hope and decimate stigma” surrounding addiction through educational and awareness events. The momentum for bringing on more assistance started when around three dozen local treatment and recovery leaders accepted his invitation to a meeting to discuss ways to change the language around addiction and recovery in Springfield. At that meeting he shared data about relapse, and his own resolve that the community could do better.
BLIR, which two years ago became a nonprofit organization, has been seeking closer partnerships with community entities such as the Springfield public schools. A group of people in recovery recently completed playground restoration work for the schools. Stoecker has even visited his 7-year-old's elementary school class, but he'd like the chance to speak before state legislators soon as well.
“We're reducing lengths of residential stay in Missouri,” he says. “We're going to create a revolving door and keep people mired in their addiction.”
Stoecker's wife is a videographer and has assisted in raising BLIR's visibility. Stoecker is also featured in a public service announcement that is frequently broadcast locally, and he is working on a documentary for which he is seeking grant funding, with the goal of being able to show the film in local schools. He says the organization that employs him as a counselor, Alternative Opportunities Treatment Services, has strongly supported his efforts in the greater community.
“Community awareness and education, that's really my passion,” he says. “Fighting stigma head-on.”
Gave faith a chance
Stoecker, who grew up in Illinois, says he had started using substances by 7th grade. Moving to Missouri in part to escape the drug culture, he instead became introduced to methamphetamine and dropped out of high school during his senior year.
“I was in and out of jail,” he says. “I turned 21 in prison. I would end up getting my GED in prison.”
Stoecker experienced his own revolving door of treatment stays and life in the community, usually with little recovery support during periods at home. He had been abused during childhood and considered himself agnostic, but would later experience a shift toward the spiritual.
“I figured I had tried everything else, so I would give God a chance,” he says. “When I focused on recovery and faith, I never looked back.”
He attends 12-Step meetings at least once a week, usually gravitating to those that his counseling patients are unlikely to select.
Participation in BLIR events continues to grow, with 300 people involved in the ballpark event in Springfield in late August and 125 people running in a 5 and 10K event in town the following week. Stoecker is no longer willing to wait patiently for a community response to develop. “This all made me realize I couldn't sit back,” he says. “I had to be proactive.”