In Washtenaw County, there is an organization working daily to advocate for and support people affected by substance use disorder—engaging with local and state policymakers, telling stories of recovery that educate the community, and providing free overdose rescue kits to save lives.
Convening to address a crisis
Marci Scalera is former co-chair of the Opioid Project and former director of clinical and substance use disorder services at the Community Mental Health Partnership of Southeast Michigan (CMHPSM)—the organization that oversees mental health and substance use supports and services for Washtenaw and three other local counties.
Scalera was part of the Opioid Project’s nascent days, and recalls the work group forming in response to health department data that showed an alarming increase of substance use issues—including greater opioid use and overdose—in Washtenaw County. These issues mirrored a national trend commonly referred to as the opioid epidemic.
Through meetings and discussion, members concluded that the county needed a more organized group that focused on the full spectrum of recovery, not just treatment. As conversations evolved, the decision was made to develop a recovery community organization (RCO).
Addressing the holistic needs of recovery
RCOs are founded on three key pillars of work: policy and advocacy; community education and outreach; and, peer recovery support services.
They’re not considered treatment, but rather, a place for people with shared experiences to join and support one another. RCOs focus on holistic health and sustaining recovery, as opposed to the immediate fixes of treatment, and bridge the gap between traditional substance use disorder treatment and long-term recovery needs.
After the Opioid Project members secured state and federal funding, WRAP launched in 2015 as the county’s first RCO. Ultimately, Home of New Vision (HoNV), one of the county’s main substance use treatment organizations, stepped in to host the organization.
Scalera acknowledges that the development of WRAP likely wouldn’t have happened without the leadership of Glynis Anderson, founder and CEO of HoNV, who was an early proponent of non-traditional approaches to recovery..
“Home of New Vision has been instrumental in ensuring that recovery-oriented programs are happening locally,” Scalera says, “while also employing many people who are in recovery.”
While RCOs have increased their presence in Michigan, growing from ten to 17 in the past two years, most are concentrated in Southeast Michigan and remain absent in the state’s upper peninsula and western regions. Scalera notes that WRAP was an early adopter, and now provides information to other Michigan communities who are interested in developing an RCO.
Utilizing recovery coaches with lived experience
WRAP’s original mission was to expand the local network of peer recovery coaches, sometimes simply referred to as peers—people with lived experience who have successfully been through the recovery process and can provide support to others.
Scalera notes that peer recovery coaches are imperative for recovery work. They’re often embedded in community-based health clinics—where they can help those in recovery navigate systems and understand the nuances of treatment from their own experiences.
“WRAP became the venue for peers,” Scalera says, “to learn how to engage other persons in early recovery, provide education to the community, host events, and really be in charge of the recovery peer coaching process.”
Recovery community organizations themselves are peer-led and driven—with over 50 percent of their boards composed of people with lived experience.
Educating our community
Another pillar of WRAP’s work is community education and outreach—such as visibility walks and community presentations that educate a variety of audiences.
Sara Szczotka is the program manager of Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project (WRAP). She recounts when WRAP assisted with the rollout of a local police officer training for administering naloxone—a medicine that can be used to reverse an opioid overdose and save lives, and something that WRAP distributes for free through its website.
“Initially, some officers didn’t understand the point of giving someone naloxone,” recalls Szczotka, “because they thought the person would simply end up in jail or dead. So when we brought in someone in recovery [to speak], they really got to see what’s possible.
Szczotka says the training was a crucial moment for establishing WRAP’s relationship with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, which has been a close partner ever since.
WRAP has continued to expand its presence, serving more people each year, and has expanded its education services into high schools, to teach youth about opioids and substance use issues in an honest, straightforward manner.
“Providing information to the community is invaluable,” says Scalera. “For example, when we held the Opioid Summit [an annual event hosted through the Opioid Project since 2018], WRAP was instrumental—hosting panels, helping people understand that recovery happens and we need to support people.”
Combating stigma and navigating funding
Both Szczotka and Scalera think there’s still room for improvement surrounding education and stigma reduction in Washtenaw County.
“Many of our local providers are passionate about addressing stigma, but it doesn’t always filter down to the entire organization,” notes Szczotka. “We still hear stories about people [utilizing care] who feel they weren’t treated quite as well because of their past history with substance use. For example, we’re not doing enough to support postpartum [people in recovery].”
She notes that providers and other leaders can make a difference by making it a priority to share important information about stigma with their staff, especially those on the frontlines who are providing services to clients.
“Stigma is so important,” stresses Scalera, “so having WHI members share knowledge with their organizations is key in helping expand the culture of recovery and reducing stigma around substance use.”
In addition to stigma reduction, Szczotka cites sustainable funding as another ongoing challenge.
“RCOs have been historically underfunded,” she says. “For example, we have a grant right now that’s for eight months. It’s really hard to create a sustainable program when you don’t know what you’ll be doing next year.”
Getting involved is easy
There are lots of ways for everybody, not just those in recovery, to get involved with WRAP.
All WRAP events are open to the public, including movie nights at Frog Island Park in Ypsilanti and other kid-friendly events for families. WRAP also hosts recovery ally trainings that confront misconceptions, teach empathy, and show people how to positively impact those in recovery.
Szczotka says that simply showing up goes a long way within the recovery community.
“Instead of just saying what we’re doing is good, coming to an event and sharing the information you learn is so helpful.” Szczotka affirms. “It can make a huge difference.”
Want to get involved with the Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project and see how they may be able to partner with your organization for educational opportunities? Email Sara Szczotka at firstname.lastname@example.org