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Training a Well-Rounded Group of Counselors

January 1, 2007
by Brion P. McAlarney
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As a recently recovering person at age 35, Donna Mae DePola was enrolled at a local college in New York on her way to achieving credentialing as a certified addiction counselor. Yet while her recovery from cocaine and heroin addiction made her a logical candidate for the credentialing program, she felt out of place.

“I felt a little out of it because most people in there had degrees,” says DePola. “I felt that I needed to open a school that was aimed a little bit toward the recovering person, as well as the professional person, meaning a lot of professionals are in recovery too.”

With a background in the restaurant business, DePola says it was natural for her to look into opening her own school. She was working as a counselor in an agency and collaborated with a friend to look into the requirements and write a curriculum. The process lasted 18 months, culminating in a 1994 acceptance from the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

The Resource CASAC Group, Inc. (now called The Resource Training Center) opened in the New York community of Bay Ridge with six students. The counselor credentialing school has since graduated more than 2,000. DePola considers her organization unique because not only does it administer a CASAC (Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor) program, it also covers subjects that a recovering addict likely will have to address, such as conflict resolution, dressing for success, resumé writing, and job interview preparation.

The center also helps students with general reading and writing skills when necessary. “We send them to places where they can improve their skills while they’re coming to our school, so by the time they’ve graduated, not only do they have the CASAC, but they have a lot of other skills that they needed to sharpen,” says DePola.

The center offers a day program on weekdays and an evening program that runs two nights a week and all day Saturday. The day program is intended for people who may still be living in a treatment center and working toward the next phase of recovery. The evening program is for people who may already be working in the field but need to attain their state credential.

Placement successes

DePola measures her program's success on how well it places graduates into jobs as substance abuse counselors. The Resource Training Center receives the bulk of its funding from the New York State Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID), a state agency.

“Recovering from substance abuse is considered a disability, so VESID sent us a few people in the beginning,” she says. With the center having established a track record of placing individuals in jobs as counselors, VESID now pays for the educational costs of all enrollees there.

Donna mae depola

Donna Mae DePola

The center employs a master's-level credentialed rehabilitation counselor who places students in internships that lead to jobs. “We don’t believe that students should go from our classroom [directly] into a job,” says DePola. “To go from a classroom is really not conducive—it just doesn’t work, so we place in internships that last about 90 days.” The internship follows six to nine months of classroom work.

The center works with 50 provider agencies, including 10 that hire most of its students. New York City treatment agencies such as Odyssey House and Greenhope Services for Women, Inc., are part of that group.

“My passion is getting them the job and having them be productive in society again,” says DePola. “A lot of them haven’t been in many years.

“It's a wonderful feeling to hear when a student attains a job,” she adds. “They don’t even require much—they’re getting paid $22,000-$25,000 and for them it's like a million.”

Setting itself apart

Students generally have found the center through word of mouth, but that is changing as the center starts to market itself to compete against new schools that have been popping up all over the place, says DePola. “People have seen the chance to make some money, but we’re unique—we do extra for the students,” she says.

Looking ahead, DePola would like to expand the services provided at the center beyond the CASAC certification. “We have all of our eggs in one basket with VESID, and that's a little scary,” she says. The center recently sent the state a proposal to offer a program that would incorporate training on computer and office skills.

Brion P. McAlarney is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.