Giving Young People in Recovery a Voice

What happens when young people in addiction recovery are brought together and empowered to better themselves and their world?

You get a vibrant grassroots organization called Young People in Recovery (YPR) that is not only helping to improve our nation’s response to those whose lives have been derailed by substance use but which stands as proof that recovery is possible.

Formed just a few years ago and established as a nonprofit only last year, the group already claims 89 chapters in 30 states, noted Kimber Lee Falkinburg, a program coordinator for the YPR’s national team, which guides and supports the chapters and advances the organization’s mission. “It’s unbelievable growth,” she said, noting that only a few months earlier, the number of chapters was half the current amount.

Social media has played a key role in that expansion, she said, providing platforms for the sharing of strategies, materials, encouragement and personal stories. “That’s one of the things that’s been a driving force: our ability to connect with young people through social media and have meaningful conversations. YPR has done a really good job of using technology to empower young people.”

The value of face-to-face connections isn’t forgotten either. YPR chapters are a source of support for their members as well as a social outlet. “We find young people really enjoy getting together when they are in or seeking recovery and going bowling together or playing ultimate Frisbee or doing a service project together,” Falkinburg said. “We feel very strongly in advocating for prosocial activities.”

Advocacy and Action

One thing YPR is not, Falkinburg explains, is a program of recovery. The organization advocates no one path out of addiction; instead it recognizes that people arrive at their destinations in different ways. What it concentrates on instead is promoting the formation of recovery-ready communities that make it easier for young people to find solutions that work for them and keep their positive momentum going.

It does this through two main arms: advocacy and action.

Advocacy entails “helping young people learn how to use their voice” to influence public policy, Falkinburg said. For example, many chapters have recently thrown their support behind the “ban the box” campaign, which calls for an end to the checkbox on job applications that reveals criminal convictions. It’s a process that can cause those with a drug arrest in their past to be shut out from meaningful employment. “If a chapter member or a chapter as a whole decides that they want to work on a project, they would be empowered to share that information via social media, to come up with ways to talk about that issue in their area with their local policymakers, and create change that can reduce barriers to people who are in or seeking recovery,” Falkinburg explained.

The good news about such advocacy, she said, is that it appears to be having an effect. “We were thrilled to hear the opioid epidemic and addiction be one of the very first topics discussed in the recent State of the Union address,” she said. And the stigma surrounding those with addictions seems to be slowly lessening. Along with many other organizations, she said, “we have been working very, very hard to move the needle on these topics, and it has been successful. Does that mean that the conversation is over? Absolutely not. … There’s a lot of work to be done, but compared to a year ago, certainly, we are very optimistic about the changes that are happening across the country.”

The action arm of YPR takes aim at three key areas, outside of treatment itself, that have been identified as crucial in helping young people create a secure base from which to pursue and maintain their recovery — housing, education and employment. “Our chapters are equipped with the ability to provide workshops free of charge to their communities,” Falkinburg said. For example, a YPR chapter might host a workshop on writing resumes or on finding ways to fund higher education. In this way, YPR acts to provide some of the very services it advocates for.

YPR has also created a number of original programs. Among the most successful is My Recovery Is E.P.I.C., which brings trained peers to interested addiction treatment centers for an hour or two a week to establish a relationship with the young people going through the recovery process. (E.P.I.C. stands for evidence-based, peer-delivered, individually developed, and community-focused.) When the young people complete their treatment, they are then given the opportunity to work in a peer recovery relationship through YPR for 90 days after discharge. “We work together to create a wellness plan and an action plan for that person which addresses domains such as housing, education, overall wellness, finance, employment and so on,” Falkinburg explained.

The person is also automatically integrated into the local YPR chapter “which increases the amount of fellowship they have and the amount of connections. It’s a natural progression of relationships.”

Falkinburg, who recently celebrated five years in recovery, knows full well the power of connecting with a peer at such a vulnerable and frightening time. “In my own situation, it was very difficult for me to find a person to speak with who could understand my struggle and how I felt having to make decisions once I entered into treatment. It was especially difficult if they were significantly older and if their life experiences were significantly different from mine.”

But when interacting with a peer, she said, “something magical happens.”

“I find that it just kind of breaks down a barrier right out of the gate when somebody who talks like me and understands my situation can say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there before, and let’s talk about what this looks like to move forward in this direction.’”

Empowered From Day One

Despite YPR’s focus on youth, the group enforces “no age cutoff at all,” Falkinburg emphasized. “Our primary target population is 18 to 25; however, we work with people at any age, and we have a chapter leader who is in his 60s. We have another chapter that is being started by family members of people in recovery.” Such supplemental support is not only allowed but welcomed, she said. “We love allies.”

Those interested in becoming part of YPR can look in their community for an existing chapter, Falkinburg said, and if they don’t find one, they can start their own. “We onboard them through a 90-day process that’s self-paced, where they have the opportunity to look at videos and are connected with a chapter coordinator who can answer any questions they have. I myself went through that process when I started a chapter before I was a staff member,” she explained, “and it’s very helpful. It really tells you how to go about developing grassroots organizations, how you go talk to your community, how you rally people together. And once you do and you have them all in a room, what in the world do you tell everyone?”

One thing new members won’t hear from YPR, she said, is “you need to get some time under your belt before you are able to go out and be successful in your recovery. We don’t believe that. We believe from the first day that you decide to make a change in your life and work on your resiliency and coping mechanisms and your recovery plan, that you are equipped to go out and better yourself.”

There is still hope.

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