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A learning community for recovery

January 29, 2013
by Lorie Obernauer, PhD, and Leonard Bade
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How many professional conferences did you attend in the past year? If the answer is more than one, you’ll likely relate to this quote that spurred a new organization, a first-ever event and a new chapter for many in our industry:

“I can’t believe that after all these meetings, workshops and conference sessions, the most valuable time for me was still during the coffee breaks, when I met with people I wanted to meet with and talked about the issues I wanted to talk about.”

When the Treatment Professionals in Alumni Services (TPAS) steering committee planned the first-ever meeting for treatment center alumni and recovery professionals, we were determined to create a new type of experience for attendees. While most “sit and listen” conferences offer a great deal of new and provocative information, committee members agreed that it is often a challenge to implement what we learn at conferences back on the job. We wondered what we could do to make a TPAS gathering a different type of experience.

TPAS history

In 2007, Lorie Obernauer was asked to start an alumni program at CeDAR (Center for Dependency, Addiction, and Rehabilitation, Aurora, Colo.). Obernauer had started her own recovery program in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and was not familiar with treatment center alumni programs. With a background in higher education and business, she assumed she could learn about treatment center alumni programs through an online database or professional organization. But she was not able to find these resources.

Left with no other option, Obernauer used personal networking with treatment center professionals across the country to learn about alumni programming. In the process, she discovered that many professionals felt isolated as they ran their programs on their own or in small departments; they were eager to connect with peers in the field to share ideas.

When the idea for TPAS was born in 2010, several alumni professionals stepped up to work with Obernauer on a TPAS steering committee. The intent was to create a national organization. Currently, approximately 150 treatment facilities and other recovery-oriented organizations across the country are involved with TPAS.

The TPAS Collaborative

In 2012, after holding successful TPAS meetings during regional and national conferences, the steering committee determined that it was time to create a “stand-alone” TPAS event. When we started to plan this event, we turned in part to what we had learned in our 12-Step programs. First, community is a vital source for practical information about “how to do what needs to be done.” Second, community is the glue that supports us as we try out new ideas and behaviors. And just as in 12-Step rooms, we believed that all participants could be both teachers and learners.

With this is mind, we named our gathering the “TPAS Collaborative,” and our goals were to create:

·       A network and collaborative community of professionals who support long-term recovery through alumni services and other support service programs.

·       A community where participants could support peers when implementing new ideas on the job.

·       A future for alumni services that would be distinctively different from what currently exists in the addiction treatment industry.

Instead of planning the usual conference agenda, we intended to create a process that would engage participants and facilitate experiences that were immediately replicable for their alumni constituents as well as for the organizations they serve. From conversations with alumni and recovery professionals across the country, we knew that successful alumni and recovery activities were already in place. We wanted to find a meaningful way to share these successes and to help attendees figure out what they could apply in their own settings.

The Collaborative process

Two steering committee members, Obernauer and Leonard Bade, were designated as co-facilitators for the Collaborative. Miriam Meima, program director at A New Path in Carbondale, Colo., also helped to facilitate. Bade’s experience working in community building, leadership development and organizational culture change led to the use of two innovative processes that would produce a dynamic experience for the participants.

The first process, “Creating a Community of Collaboration, Accountability and Service,” is based on the work of Peter Block. It included a series of six small-group conversations that were held throughout the three-day gathering. Each conversation began with a question designed to demand powerful engagement from participants. Instead of traditional conversations and/or presentations that ask people to study, analyze and explain certain information, these questions encouraged participants to become curious about possibilities for the future.

Within the framework of this process, the power of transformation rested in changing the usual narrative, and finding new, powerful ways of communicating. Well-formed questions gave rise to intense discussions in which everyone had an opportunity to have a voice and take responsibility for the richness of interactions and outcomes.

The second simultaneous process that shaped the agenda was grounded in “Open Space Technology.” This strategy has been used in thousands of organizations to help groups engage with complex issues in simple, innovative and productive ways. Our plan was to have attendees identify their specific issues and questions about alumni and recovery support services, self-select into discussion groups, and work with others also concerned with that issue.