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Strengthening recovery through relationships

November 1, 2008
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Bev Haberle never forgot how much her own recovery had been enhanced through what she learned from peers, so working for a Pennsylvania organization overseeing three peer-run recovery support organizations always felt natural. But it took an experience away from that world—staring at another frightening threat to her wellness—for her to understand recovery support's full potential.

Diagnosed with breast cancer more than three years ago, just as the Pennsylvania Recovery Organization—Achieving Community Together (PRO-ACT) was developing its first recovery community center, Haberle encountered a most comforting development during her treatment. “I visited my oncologist's office, and there was a huge sign posted there that read, ‘How Can We Help You With Your Recovery?’” she recalls.

Haberle would learn that at each stage of her treatment, someone would pause to ask specifically about her needs. Her treatment-related options could include learning to cook healthy meals, taking a stress management class, or receiving massage therapy, all designed to enhance recovery and self-reliance. Moreover, each of the services being offered was free. “We believe these things will help you,” she recalls the staff saying.

“At that point I thought, ‘We have really not come very far in the [addiction] field,’” Haberle says. “In cancer treatment, it was sort of a given that people in recovery could be helpful. In the first year of my cancer treatment, I was in a public walk for 40,000 people.”

Can-do mentality

Today, visitors to one of PRO-ACT's peer-run recovery centers are greeted with the same words that inspired Haberle at the oncologist's office. Individuals who visit the centers, regardless of whether they have participated in a primary treatment program, realize quickly that the services are individualized and strengths-based. The centers identify needs in the recovery community and locate resources wherever they have to in order to address them.

“Most of it we find by just looking,” says Haberle, who has been in recovery for 37 years. “We had a lot of people who couldn't pass an eye test to get a certain kind of job, so we found a national group of optometrists who could provide the needed services.”

Haberle is project director of PRO-ACT, which is the grassroots organization of the Bucks County Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence's southeastern Pennsylvania affiliate). PRO-ACT got started about a decade ago largely because of federal funding support from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment's Recovery Community Services Program, designed to help communities build and sustain peer-to-peer support services.

PRO-ACT oversees operations at three community recovery centers in the region, with one devoted exclusively to women in recovery. “That site also has a small housing component, because in that area housing for women is very scarce,” Haberle says.

“People will say to me, ‘How do you know to do all these things?’, and I tell them that this is what I experienced,” she adds. “The peer component has disconnected somewhat from treatment.”

People open up

Anyone in recovery can be served at the community centers, where a welcoming environment helps lift some of the barriers people experience. “Recovery has a lot to do with relationships,” Haberle says.

Perhaps an individual is having trouble completing an important form because of a lack of computer skills. “Their ego doesn't let them say, ‘I don't know how to do that,’ but our centers allow them to open up and we help them navigate the Web,” Haberle says.

The Bucks County Council and PRO-ACT receive funding from a variety of sources, including federal, county, and city dollars as well as private foundation support. Haberle says the group hopes to establish community recovery centers in each of the five southeastern Pennsylvania counties. The need for the services appears undeniable, with a center in Philadelphia open for less than a year and already serving 800 individuals a month.

“Peer-to-peer services have become a huge inspiration to me,” Haberle says. “It's so exciting to watch the growth and to watch people being empowered. People have something to give as well as something to get.”

Haberle hopes the programs' successes are also chipping away at the often-aired attitude that peer support services will take resources away from traditional treatment. She sees them as only an enhancement to treatment.

She tells the story of a man in recovery for 20 years who was living in his father's basement and “holding sobriety by his fingertips.” Peer support services eventually led to him getting a job and also being in a position to coach others in recovery. “It's like he's reborn,” she says.

Addiction Professional 2008 November;6(6):40