Minnesota Recovery Connection (MRC), a community-based organization, provides peer-to-peer support, public education, and advocacy for people seeking or sustaining recovery from substance use disorders. In this interview (edited for length), Wendy Jones, MRC’s executive director since 2018, shares highlights from her experience as she leaves her position.
What attracted you to MRC in the first place?
The community-based approach and the advocacy around recovery — all pathways to recovery – and the openness about breaking stigma. I’d never really thought of myself as being part of a community like the recovery community. I never did a Twelve Step program. I went through treatment, but it was a very solitary experience. It was always something that I kind of hid because of the stigma around it.
Volunteering with Minnesota Recovery Connection before I became the executive director opened my eyes to the connection from recovery to basically everything else — the intersections with public policy, with our healthcare system, with our educational system. It inspired in me that drive, that mission, to really make a difference in a space that had been hidden to me for a long time.
What were you hoping to accomplish in this job?
So much great work had happened prior to me joining Minnesota Recovery Connection, but it had been through a fair amount of turmoil in the previous years. It needed its base to be solidified, so that was my first goal.
I was entering the recovery field after 30 years of working in public history and museums and had to develop a deeper knowledge, a deeper understanding of the nuances in this field within the broader space of behavioral health. So, that was also my goal, for me to learn.
Other recovery community organizations were starting to pop up around the state after the introduction of Medicaid reimbursement for peer recovery support services, which is a service that our RCOs [Recovery Community Organizations] provide, among many other things. There were a lot of things happening in the political landscape, the national landscape, that could either sort of pit us against each other in going after resources or could promote that we start learning from each other and collaborate. My goal was to make connections to support the growth of this recovery movement around the state.
How has Minnesota Recovery Connection grown under your leadership?
When I started, there were four staff members. There are now over 20, and a lot of new partnerships have developed. We used to do maybe three trainings a year. We now do over 20. We have not only helped to develop the recovery peer recovery specialist workforce, but in being able to deliver services, have grown tremendously in these past four years. We’ve had a tremendous team of people here, all of whom have started as volunteers. So, that kind of recovery leadership development has happened, and I’m grateful to work with such an amazing team and I’m so proud of them.
One thing I’m very proud of is that we’ve built up a hub of support services and training that’s targeted at people who have experienced incarceration. There’s such a strong intersection between substance use disorder and incarceration, and we’ve really been successful in elevating that as a need and building programs and services that are not just delivered by Minnesota Recovery Connection but are coordinating with other organizations to support that.
I’m very proud that we have worked with other recovery community organizations around the state to create an alliance called the Minnesota Alliance of Recovery Community Organizations, or MARCO, that will provide professional development, support, and advocacy for organizations like MRC around the state to help grow more community-based recovery hubs and to help sustain them in their work. A lot of RCOs worked together, recognizing that we needed to lift each other up, to develop MARCO. We received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services through a competitive RFP process to establish MARCO as a statewide RCO. Our grant contract was just executed a few weeks ago, and I’m very excited to see how MARCO will develop.
Does the emergence of MARCO change Minnesota Recovery Connection’s role?
Prior to MARCO’s development MRC was kind of filling that gap of being a statewide support. It was the state’s first RCO, and one of only a few RCOs for a long time. We’ve helped to mentor other new organizations around the state and have been a strong advocate for recovery in public policy. I think we all felt it was better in the long run that eventually there be a new organization to take on that role.
Minnesota Recovery Connection will continue after I leave to focus on its direct service delivery, providing peer support, and on its public education efforts, doing training, and the Walk for Recovery. RCO mentorship. Statewide advocacy and working with the legislature on behalf of our RCOs will move over to this new organization.
What programs has MRC developed related to people being incarcerated?
Recovery Coaching, Navigating the Criminal Justice System, is a four-day training intended for people who’ve already completed a recovery coaching training. It deepens their ability to use their own lived experience of having been involved in the criminal justice system in being able to help others who have had that experience. Because the criminal justice system is very complex, people who have experienced that often have some very unique needs and face different barriers than others. So, we developed that training as a way to help strengthen the workforce, and to help strengthen recovery community organizations overall.
If there’s one thing that I hope for the future, it’s that as a community we stay focused on the bigger picture, of lifting each other up. Recovery needs to be a big tent with room for all.We also worked with the Minnesota Certification Board to make sure that that someone who goes through that training, or a comparable training, could get an additional credential as a certified Peer Recovery Specialist. We’ve been working with recovery community organizations around the state to get that training up and running.
We’ve developed really strong partnerships with Hennepin County Probation, Dakota County jails, the Department of Corrections, and others to connect with individuals early, either while they’re currently incarcerated or as they’re reentering their communities, to provide that peer-to-peer support.
Just recently, we started working with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Department of Corrections to develop a coordinated network of reentry recovery support. Minnesota Recovery Connection is going to be the lead, working with seven other recovery community organizations around the state so that we can have a coordinated referral system when someone leaves incarceration. We’re working with other organizations in Moorhead, St. Cloud, Duluth, Mankato, Rochester, Bemidji, and then a culturally specific organization, the Twin Cities Recovery Project, which primarily serves members of the African American community.
A couple years ago, we trained individuals who were currently incarcerated at the Moose Lake Penitentiary to be recovery coaches, and we will be doing more soon The big vision behind this is to start building someone’s capacity to use that lived experience to help others and maybe create a pathway to employment when they return to their communities.
What can you say about the impact MRC is having?
The impact is pretty profound in two ways. One, in affecting the lives of individuals who are not getting the support they need in traditional places. At MRC, maybe they’re signed up to get telephone recovery support on a weekly basis, or they’re meeting with a coach one to one on a regular basis. Often that individual then starts to volunteer at MRC. They become part of a community that’s very supportive of recovery. As they volunteer, they’re engaging in other activities that help to build their recovery and their skills in helping others.
Many of them will then go on to take our recovery coaching class, which is a week-long training, and then get their credential from the Minnesota Certification Board. Many do terms with Recovery Corps, an AmeriCorps program that we partner with. Or they might get employed by other organizations as peer recovery specialists. Or they take that knowledge and skills and experience – their recovery capital – and are able to use that in other aspects of their lives. It’s about helping people sustain recovery over time, building social connections, employment connections, health connections — strengthening their own recovery capital and their capacity to give back and to help others.
On a systems level, the change that I see is breaking stigma, like with the Walk for Recovery, an amazing event to break stigma around substance use disorder. We’re basically recovering out loud and not afraid to talk about it, and we’re modeling stigma-free language. We’re modeling hope.
On broader systems change level, I’m particularly grateful that we’ve been able to use Minnesota Recovery Connection as a way to support other communities and other entities. We’ve worked quite a bit with Niyyah Recovery Initiative, founded by Farhia Budul, which serves the East African Community. We’re also a fiscal sponsor for Recovery Cafe Frogtown in Saint Paul. We wrote emerging recovery community organizations in Duluth and Saint Cloud into grants that have helped them. We’ve worked with an indigenous recovery movement called Sober Squad. Over 200 people from different Native nations in Minnesota have been trained to be recovery coaches through MRC.
We’ve partnered with Allina, North Memorial, Hennepin County Child Protective Services, and Central Minnesota Emergency Medical Services. We’re partnering with systems to extend peer-based recovery support out into a more public level. We’re helping to build a recovery ecosystem.
Are there any particular experiences you’ve had at MRC that stand out for you?
I think I’m most proud of those individuals, organizations, and groups that have embraced their own strength, their own agency and recovery capital. Because this work is not about doing for people. It’s about walking alongside. When we all walk alongside each other and support each other, we’re powerful. We’re lifting each other up. That is what inspires me and has made me want to do this work.
What are some of your hopes for the future of recovery in Minnesota?
I really hope to see more recovery voices at the table in public policy making, and things being constructed and developed with diverse communities of recovery instead of for them. There have been some positive developments in the state recently. Governor Walz established the Governor’s Advisory Council on Opioids, Substance Use, and Addiction — a community-based council that I am proud to be a member of. He also developed a subcabinet around substance use disorder and addiction and appointed a Director of Addiction and Recovery, Jeremy Drucker.
My hope is that this energy can continue in a way that shifts the narrative to a long-term recovery vision, not just short-term intervention and treatment. We need both. Also important is recognizing substance use disorder as a health condition and not a moral failing. We need to keep working towards a recovery-oriented system of care.
Can you share what you’re going to be doing next?
I hope to continue working to grow the recovery movement around the state.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If there’s one thing that I hope for the future, it’s that as a community we stay focused on the bigger picture, of lifting each other up. Recovery needs to be a big tent with room for all.
Pat Samples is a Twin Cities freelance writer, writing coach, and somatic coach. Her website is patsamples.com.
Last Updated on May 9, 2023