Clients Find Purpose at Recovery Center - Diverse Health

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Clients Find Purpose at Recovery Center

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by Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — In 2013, Elizabeth Torres, then 47, stared at a bag of crack and a small bundle of bills.
For the longtime drug addict, it might have been a relaxed day. She had drugs, money, and she wasn’t even homeless- depending on your definition of a home.

But she didn’t want the drugs. Instead, she called her sister, and told her that she was hungry.
“I said ‘I’m home,’ but it wasn’t a home, it was just a place with no lights, sitting in my living room by myself, because my kids weren’t there.”

Three years sober, Torres is now the volunteer coordinator at the Bridgeport Recovery Community Center, which recently celebrated it’s 10-year anniversary. In attendance were political and social work leaders, including Mayor Joe Ganim and U.S. Rep Jim Himes, D-Conn., and a number of speakers who recounted stories of their recovery.

The center is part of a statewide network of the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery. Inside the center’s doors on 49 Cannon Street, addicts can find tools to buck their habits. At a time when an opioid crisis has plagued the region, CCAR leaders want residents to know that there’s a place for people to turn.

Computers, phones and knowledgeable staff help addicts connect with services- everything from housing to suits for job interviews. Councilors hold job-training workshops, volunteers call recovering addicts from phone banks, and there’s always a cup of hot coffee for clients who need to think.

If a home is more than just a series of rooms and conveniences, than the Bridgeport Recovery Community Center is more than a set of desks, phones, and whiteboards.

Tucked in an alleyway off of Broad Street and Cannon Street, the building forms the hub for a committed group of recovering addicts who support each other.

Behind almost every staff title and volunteer name tag in the building lies a story of triumph over addiction.

It starts with manager Michael Askew, whose humble title hides his role as founder and CEO. His rise from a nine-time convict to a leading addiction recovery counselor was most recently reported by the Hearst Connecticut Media in 2014.
Askew has inspired many addicts to patch up their lives and follow his path into counseling. Often, these aspiring social workers begin as volunteers.

“It’s like a job, except that you don’t get paid,” Torres said. “And it’s a change, it’s the beginning of a change,” in which clients shift into roles in which they are not just reactive to their own needs, but are proactively taking care of others.
Early in recovery, it’s hard to imagine some people who’ve been on the streets for years making it through a job interview.
“A lot of people don’t have the confidence to get a job,” said councilor Amy Yazmer, who offers classes at various CCAR locations, including the weekly one in Bridgeport. “Their addiction beats them down. They have been incarcerated. And in their heads they’re constantly saying ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do this.’ “

More than just a job coach, Yazmer is an addiction-recovery cheerleader (her word). At a session focused on interviewing skills in early August, she ran the center’s clients through exercises, including a required list of 15 positive attributes.

“What the groups do is- we don’t promise a job -but we empower (people) to look in the mirror and say ‘you’re OK,’ “ she said.
Two men interrupted the session, half-promising to participate, but they really just wanted to charge their phone and snag a cup of coffee. Askew eventually intervened, taking them outside and calmly explaining the rules of the center.

Those who embrace those rules often become volunteers, but they also remain clients, helping day-to-day operations. Others move on from formal involvement, but stay connected.

“It’s always good to see someone that you know,” said Lionel Harris, 47, who first came to the center for recovery treatment in 2008. “As best as I can say it, everyone is family; we know each other … through a seminar, through a group, through being in the streets, through … a smile or even tears. We’re all on the same page, and we’ve all had the same experience one way or another.”

Those with good stories give him hope and reassurances. Those who’ve fallen off the wagon remind him not to slip.

Torres faced her biggest challenge last September, when her son, an Air Force police detective, died in a car accident.

“My son passed away and I got that knock that no mother should get,” she said. “But because of the strength that I acquired in my years of recovery …. I didn’t use.”

Since her recovery, she recouped physical custody of her 12-year-old daughter. Torres also recently started college classes, pursuing a degree in social work.

Harris is also pursuing a degree. He doesn’t work at the center, nor does he formally volunteer. But that sense of family sends him through the center’s doors whenever he passes by.

Sometimes that’s on the way to class at Housatonic Community College, where he recently made Phi Beta Kapa pursuing a degree in social work, he said.

Harris said that he first made the dean’s list at the school from a homeless shelter. It was one step in restoring his confidence in himself- many of the early ones he credits directly to Askew, who gave him escalating trust as a volunteer years ago, and welcomed him without judgment following a relapse.

“We stopped using drugs a long time ago,” said Torres. “Now we’re left do deal with ourselves and the devastation that we did when we were doing drugs.”

Despite falling short for his 20-year-old son at some points in their past, Harris said he is now better equipped to support him emotionally, even inspiring him to consider continuing college despite his son’s own personal obstacles.

“My sister goes to my house now,” said Torres. “She puts her pocketbook down, and she’s not afraid that I’m going to … steal her money.

“Today I have a home,” she said. “My daughter goes to school. I have a house (with lights). It’s a home, not just a dark place.”

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