Creating a recovery community: Cherokee holds fourth annual Rally for Recovery
By now, most everyone is familiar — often far too personally — with the toll of the opioid epidemic. Lost lives, stolen futures, vanished trust. Loved ones transformed into unrecognizable ghosts of themselves. Law enforcement, mental health and emergency services pushed past capacity.
But the fourth annual Rally for Recovery in Cherokee, held Thursday, July 18, wasn’t about those problems. Instead, it was about solutions.
“We want to provide opportunities so they can start to create this web for each other in their families, in their friendships, and it’s at events like this that we can get all the people at the table,” said Lara Conner, recovery center supervisor for the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority. “We can get the folks in recovery, we can get their families, we can get their children, we can get the employers and the resources that are out in the community.”
The event featured a program of panels and presentations, kid’s activities and more than 50 vendor tables representing organizations that offer everything from recovery support to dental care to mental health to job training to clean needle exchanges. This year, the event even included a whitewater rafting company, Endless River Adventures based in the Nantahala Gorge.
“We wanted to expand that circle out a little bit more and let people know that it’s not just about taking your medication. It’s not just about stopping drug use or alcohol use,” said Connor. “It’s about filling your life back up with healthy things. A lot of that’s hobbies. So many of our folks have never known hobbies sober.”
Kayaking — and outdoor adventure in general — is just a good tool for maintaining mental health, regardless of whether or not someone is in recovery, said Zuzana Montagne, a paddling guide and instructor at Endless River who manned a table at the event.
“I know that kayaking is a thing that will help me when I am struggling with stuff,” she said. “It’s something that can bring you calmness and peace and strength.”
Finding those sources of peace is important, said Conner, as is dealing with the underlying “stuff” causing the struggle. Those aren’t just platitudes. Conner, like many professionals in the recovery field, is herself in recovery from addiction. She understands now that her own addiction issues were related to underlying depression, which was related to underlying baggage from her past that she had to work through before she could truly move forward with her life.
“Substance abuse is just one part of it,” she said. “I believe that substance abuse is a symptom of other things that are going on, and a lot of it is caused by childhood trauma of various kinds. For the Cherokee it is historical trauma.”
The goal is to create a community-wide support network to help people confront and grow past the things holding them back from a life of recovery.
Sometimes, though, it’s just about keeping people alive until they’re able to make the decision to get clean.
“It needs to be OK to meet people exactly where they’re at, regardless of whether they’re using substances or not,” said Stephanie Almeida, director of Full Circle Recovery and harm reduction coordinator for the Western North Carolina Aids Project.
When people with addictions use dirty needles or dirty water to deliver their fix, their chance of contracting serious diseases while in addiction shoots up dramatically. WNCAP provides clean needles and sterile water to clients, in the meantime building relationships with them and connecting them to other services, like food pantries, shelters — or, when they’re ready, addiction treatment.
“Really we’re the provider that connects to folks that have no place to go,” Almeida said.
On the other end of the spectrum are the people enrolled in the Mother Town Healing Project, a program that’s been making a big impact in its two years of existence. Mother Town is under the Tribal Employment Rights Office, an organization whose work to maintain lists of Indian-owned businesses and ensure those businesses get proper preference in contract bids might not, at first blush, seem to have a whole lot to do with addiction recovery.
But it does in that, while people recovering from addition might have the potential to be skilled contractors, masons and electricians, they often lack the training or work history to get hired.
“We support recovery by training, education and job skills for people that are in recovery, enrolled members that are in recovery that need to re-enter the workforce,” said Billie Jo Rich, program supervisor. “We have a lot of people who may have been in their active addiction from a very early age, so a lot of people may not have any work history, may not have any training, and may be high school dropouts.”
Through Mother Town, they get the education, training and job skills they need to get back in the labor market. The program culminates with an internship component, and many graduates have received permanent employment upon leaving the program. Rich said they’re choosy about who gets one of the five internship slots, because those participants have to be ready to take that step for it to have a chance of success.
“The last thing we want to do is set somebody up for failure,” she said.
In addition, participants must be actively engaged in recovery services. That’s a requirement Rich enacted based on her own experience — like her clients, she’s also in recovery, 22 years in October. Even after all these years, recovery takes work to maintain. In addition, most clients have some type of trauma in their past that compounds addiction issues, making continued treatment even more important.
“Until they deal with that, they’re still going to be struggling and having a rough time,” she said. “It took me a number of years to figure that out, and we’ve seen a lot of success because we’re allowing people to go to classes and groups, whereas most employers will frown on people leaving work for that.”
By helping people who are addicts and enlisting the support of their friends, families and community members, the hope is to create a culture where communication about these issues is encouraged, stigma disappears and widespread support can help even the most seemingly hopeless story have a happy ending.
“We want to help create a recovery community, and it’s happening. It’s expanding in Cherokee,” said Conner. “There are so many people getting clean and staying clean, and they’re helping each other. It’s so awesome to watch.”
Get into recovery
The Cherokee Indian Hospital’s Analenisgi Recovery Center offers connection to a full range of recovery services. If you missed the Rally for Recovery but want to learn more about the services available for those battling addiction, visit cherokeehospital.org/locations/analenisgi, call 828.497.9163, ext. 7550, or drop by 375 Sequoyah Trail in Cherokee.