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Gallery: West Virginia’s ‘Recovery Boys’

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Rush tends to the chickens at the Utterback farm. The henhouse is moved regularly in order to fertilize the farmland and maintain healthy soil. The eggs are gathered, sold, and used for meals at Jacob’s Ladder. Photo: Rebecca Kiger

Editor’s Note: Below are a series of photos taken by West Virginia photographer Rebecca Kiger at Jacob’s Ladder, a residential addiction  recovery program run by Dr. Kevin Blankenship in the rural community of  Aurora, West Virginia. 

The men featured in the photo series attended the farming-based rehab and are the subjects of the 2018 feature-length documentary “Recovery Boys,” directed by Academy Award nominee and West Virginia native Elaine McMillion Sheldon. “Recovery Boys” can be viewed on Netflix and is available for community screenings


Dear friends,

Jacob’s Ladder at Brookside Farm is a six-month residential addiction recovery program started almost three years ago in response to the growing health crisis facing our nation and in particular my home, West Virginia.

The decision to include daily farming and gardening activities within a recovery program was made in hopes of changing the activity of the brain of those suffering from addiction—to “re-wire” the neural connections, hopefully leading to increased “future thinking.”

It is working.

These men are successfully working on the farm with counselors, peers and community members to change their lives permanently.  The connection of human beings with animals and the earth is a unique catalyst for compassionate change and is an amazing thing to witness. Seeing the broken, suffering individual become a healthy, hopeful person in recovery, armed with tools to continue their journey has been the most rewarding experience of my life.

Kevin Blankenship, MD
Founder and Medical Director
Jacob’s Ladder at Brookside Farm

Kevin Blankenship is a lifelong resident of West Virginia and earned degrees in pharmacy and medicine, specializing in emergency medicine in the state. In 2014, an immediate family crisis with addiction brought Kevin face-to-face with the significant issue of this growing epidemic and the lack of recovery options throughout our country, inspiring his professional dedication to being part of the solution through directly serving the recovery industry and indirectly combating the stigma surrounding this issue in today’s society.   

Rebecca Kiger is a documentary and portrait photographer living in West Virginia. Her work has been published on the Lens blog, TIME magazine, Vox, Everyday Rural America and Looking at Appalachia. In 2018, she received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Video. Rebecca has been selected to be a ‘Teaching Artist’ through the Rural Arts Collaborative (RAC) for the next academic year at Bellaire High School, Ohio, where she will work with students on a year-long photography project. She is currently photographing stories about foster care and adoption.

Explore Kiger’s photos of Jacob’s Ladder at Brookside Farm below.

Ryan walks through a building being remodeled to house additional residents at Jacob’s Ladder in Preston County, West Virginia. Jacob’s Ladder, a residential addiction recovery center, was created in 2016 by Dr. Kevin Blankenship. Dr. Blankenship specializes in emergency medicine, but has shifted his focus into building a recovery community after helping his own son with substance use disorder. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Dave and Adam enter the barn to begin predawn farm chores. The Utterback family farm sits adjacent to Jacob’s Ladder. The Utterbacks work closely with the young men in the farming portion of the recovery program. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
As Jeff herds sheep into the barn, one leaps from the flock. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Ryan wrangles a sheep for hoof cleaning. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Ryan carries a newly born calf to its mother after they were separated moving cows from one pasture to another. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
The baby calf surrenders to an early and unexplained death while Jeff, Rush and the calf’s mother look on. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Sutton, Jeff, and Rush take a smoke break on a bench outside of the residential facility. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Farmer Mark Utterback, Ryan, and Adam gather potatoes in the fall. The potatoes are just one item of produce harvested from the first gardens planted by the men in recovery at Jacob’s Ladder. The food is used in the meals they collectively cook for one another. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Adam reclines across a makeshift table in a home being remodeled on the property. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Ryan holds a snake outside his new home in Morgantown after graduating from Jacob’s Ladder. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
After long hours of work, Jeff eats an apple collected from the farm on the ride back to Jacob’s Ladder. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Wis, who continues his recovery by volunteering at Jacob’s Ladder, tosses old boards out of the B&B Building as it’s remodeled for additional residents. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Nathan holds a window as it is removed in the remodeling of the kitchen in the B&B Building. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
The men in recovery embrace one another while gathering in the living room at Jacob’s Ladder. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Jerrica, Dr. Blankenship’s daughter, leads the men through yoga on the front lawn of Jacob’s Ladder. The facility embraces a holistic form of recovery by incorporating art therapy, music therapy, exercise, farm work, construction work, community service, frequent 12-step meetings, and meditation. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Dave raises his hands during yoga practice on the front lawn of Jacob’s Ladder. Photo: Rebecca Kiger
Rush tends to the chickens at the Utterback farm. The henhouse is moved regularly in order to fertilize the farmland and maintain healthy soil. The eggs are gathered, sold, and used for meals at Jacob’s Ladder. Photo: Rebecca Kiger

Recovery

Job Program Helps People In Recovery Rebuild Houses – And Their Lives

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A Housing Development Alliance project. Photo: Submitted

The Housing Development Alliance in Hazard, Kentucky, found that volunteers referred by the Drug Court were some of their hardest workers. Now the nonprofit organization and others are creating an employment program to help those in addiction recovery get back on their feet.

In Hazard, Kentucky, the mission of the Housing Development Alliance is to build affordable homes for people in the community. With their new program, Hope Building, they are expanding that mission: to provide employment training for individuals in addiction recovery as they learn to construct affordable homes.

The program was inspired by the individuals in recovery from addiction who have volunteered with HDA. For each of the last seven years, 60 folks from the Perry County Drug Court have served with community building and repair projects. The Drug Court leadership says it is one of the best community service projects they do, and the construction team at HDA says those volunteers are some of their hardest working.

“There is almost something spiritual about building something,” says Scott McReynolds, HDA’s Executive Director. “It really fits well with the needs of those in recovery.”

Raising a wall on a Housing Development Alliance project.  Photo: Submitted

When McReynolds approached the Drug Court about further ways to partner, he quickly understood how HDA could help. One of the greatest needs of individuals re-entering society after recovery is employment, so they recruited other partners and launched Hope Building. The job training and placement program is a collaboration between HDA, the Drug Court, Hickory Hills Recovery Center, Hazard Community and Technical College, and the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program. It provides paid on-the-job training, part-time schooling towards a construction technology degree, and the chance to garner a quality job reference. Six trainees at a time will complete the approximately year-long program, with job placement assistance as part of the process.

Research is starting to show what advocates have known anecdotally: having a job makes a significant difference in long-term addiction recovery. Only part of that is financial. For people who have misused substances, the chance to make a positive contribution in their communities can bring healing and instill a sense of purpose. But for those in recovery, the challenge of finding employment is exacerbated. Some lack job skills or good work practices. Many have a criminal record. HDA and its partners hope to create a model of how to help those in recovery re-integrate into society.

In 2017, Kentucky had an opioid overdose rate almost twice the national average, according to the National Institute of Health. Few families are left untouched, and many individuals and organizations want to be part of the solution.

That includes regional non-profit Fahe, a collaborative network of over 50 locally-rooted non-profits, including Housing Development Alliance. After learning about the Hope Building project, Fahe developed a plan to instigate eight such home construction/recovery job training programs in other Appalachian communities. They are in the process of seeking funding for this expansion.

Fahe is currently launching a separate program that offers incentives for employers to hire individuals in recovery in six Kentucky counties. Transformational employment, as Fahe calls it, connects recovering individuals with meaningful work. “We want to partner with employers who are invested in our mission of eliminating persistent poverty and want to be part of social change in their communities,” says Jessie Hunt of Fahe. Transformational employers receive financial incentives, including reimbursement for the employee’s salary for the first six months, and mentorship opportunities with Rob Perez, a successful transformational employer and owner of DV8 Kitchen in Lexington.

Fahe is partnering with Addiction Recovery Care, a network of 19 treatment centers throughout the region that incorporates workforce training in its residential recovery program. Even with their job training program, the folks at Addiction Recovery have had difficulties placing their graduates in jobs. Hunt says regional employers see the need for this second chance and they often ask her where to start. “First, do not ask applicants their felony history,” she says. “Then, hire just one individual who is in recovery.”

While the term “transformational” refers to the newly hired employees, the employers just might find themselves transformed as well. A self-proclaimed construction geek who loves to build, McReynolds of HDA has had a shift in focus since working with those in recovery. “A decade ago, I would have said our mission is to build houses. Now, I believe we use the power of housing to transform lives and build a brighter future for the community. Home construction is a tool we use to accomplish a greater purpose.”

This article was originally published by The Daily Yonder.

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Recovery

ARC Awards Grant To Help Pave Road To Addiction Recovery

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Photo: Aaron Payne/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded a major grant to what it calls an innovative pilot program for a region hit hard by the addiction crisis. The goal is to help people struggling with addiction get on the road to treatment, recovery and – ultimately – employment.

People with substance use disorders can have trouble getting to addiction treatment, long-term recovery programs and job opportunities if they don’t have access to reliable transportation, especially in rural areas.

ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas was in Huntington, West Virginia, Tuesday to announce a grant of more than $215,000 to a pilot program to connect people with rides to important appointments.

“This is a big barrier to recovery for those that have begun that journey,” ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas said. “We’ve got to remove barriers like this.”

The ARC recently went on a listening tour around Appalachia to learn about the barriers to addiction treatment and long-term recovery. The lack of reliable transportation came up at each stop.

Mobility Advisors

The Appalachian Transportation Institute at Marshall University and the Community Transportation Association of America will work with key partners to implement the program. 

Three of the main components of the program are expanding mobility options, subsidizing rides and training local addiction treatment providers to be mobility advisors.

“They’re going to sit down with each person that they’re working with and instead of just saying ‘Okay, here’s your next appointment. We’ll see you there.’ They’re going to say, ‘Your next appointment is in two weeks, let’s get you a ride scheduled so we’ll see you there,’” Appalachian Transportation Institute Director of Marketing Tricia Ball said.

The rides will not be limited to treatment or recovery services. It will include transportation to legal appointments, education programs and job opportunities.

The ultimate goal is to help those with substance use disorders return to the workforce and contribute to the ARC’s mission of economic development.

The infrastructure of the program is still being developed, but it will involve mobility advisors coordinating with community volunteer driver programs, public transportation and the ride-hailing company Lyft, depending on where the person is located.

Most of the ARC’s grant will be used to subsidize rides, according to Ball.

Data-Driven

Another major component of the program is collecting data and documenting both the successes and challenges.

The ARC is interested in gathering this data in hopes that it could help develop more programs across Appalachia.

“We want to see what works,” Thomas said. “What subject set of individuals seem to be the ones to benefit most from this type of service? What aspects of the service maybe don’t turn out to be productive? We need to know both of these things.” 

Thomas said Huntington is an appropriate location to experiment with this innovative program, given the proactive approach the city has taken.

Huntington had some of the nation’s highest rates of fatal drug overdoses during the height of the opioid crisis, drawing national attention in 2016 when it responded to 26 overdoses in just four hours.

The city since then has implemented a number of evidence-based strategies that seem to have found early success. Fatal overdose numbers dropped from 174 to 64 over the course of one year, according to city data.

“Often times people will come into Huntington … and will try to say that we are in the community that is the epicenter of the epidemic, or the epicenter of the problem,” Mayor Steve Williams said. “We like to say that we’re the epicenter of the solution, a ‘City of Solutions.’”

The pilot program is scheduled to begin sometime later this year and last 12 months.

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Working Toward Recovery: Ohio Town Fights Addiction With Focus On Economy

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Chillicothe Street in Downtown Portsmouth. Photo: Aaron Payne, Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Addiction specialists, business leaders, law enforcement officials and other community members gathered around tables at Shawnee State University to talk about two big challenges in Scioto County, Ohio: a shrinking economy and a growing addiction crisis.

The Appalachian Regional Commission brought them together as part of a listening tour to learn about connections between addiction recovery and economic recovery.

Several speakers pointed out how the opioid epidemic has left employers with job openings and a workforce unprepared to fill them.

“There’s a problem in making sure that the workforce is ready, ready with soft skills, ready with hard skills, ready just psychologically,” ARC Communication Director Wendy Wasserman said. “Employers are spooked. They don’t know how to engage and make the best of workers [in recovery] who are eager and ready to go back to work.”

ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas addresses the crowd during a stop of a listening tour in Portsmouth. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Regional Commission

The county seat, Portsmouth, lies along the Ohio River in the state’s southeastern corner and has long been at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic. State data show the county ranked 10th in the state for fatal drug overdose rates from 2012-2017. And Scioto County regularly ranks in the top ten for highest unemployment in the state.

When author and journalist Sam Quinones was writing his book about the opioid crisis, “Dreamland,” he chose Portsmouth as the country’s key example of how economic decline fueled the rise of opiate addiction in the 1990s.

“The factories and shops on Chillicothe Street were replaced by [pain management clinics], which found cheap space in the town’s abandoned buildings,” he wrote. “Pill mills were about the only locally owned businesses to open.”

Quinones tracked the origins of what is now a national epidemic to Portsmouth and other struggling towns in the region.

“Portsmouth…acted like the canaries in those now-shuttered Appalachian coal mines,” he wrote. “Just no one in the country listened much.”

Today officials are listening to Portsmouth.

The ARC took what it learned from the listening tour and created a Substance Abuse Advisory Council to suggest ways the federal organization can help.

The problem requires many solutions, and ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas believes the people they spoke with will find those solutions.

“If a problem exists in a community, ultimately, the solution to that problem will be found in the same community,” he said.

Those working on addiction and economic recovery in Scioto County believe they can both prepare workers in recovery and help employers. Two programs aim to build up people struggling with addiction while rebuilding the local economy.

Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource

Entrepreneurial Recovery

Aspiring entrepreneurs pitched business ideas to seasoned entrepreneurs at the recent TechStars Startup Weekend Portsmouth.

Teams workshopped a wedding planning business, a local farm-to-table restaurant, a video game cafe and other plans into full-fledged business models.

Participants pitch their business ideas at the recent Startup Weekend Portsmouth. Photo: Aaron Payne, Ohio Valley ReSource

The Kricker Innovation Hub at Shawnee State played host to the weekend-long event and encourages an entrepreneurial community through events like these.

The organization sees a role for itself in assisting the business-minded people who are also in recovery from addiction to jumpstart their ideas.

“People who are starting businesses and are in the recovery community will need resources, perhaps more so than the general public,” Program Director David Kilroy said. “We can leverage this infrastructure.”

Thanks in part to its association with the LIGHTS Regional Innovation program and other partnerships, members of the hub have access to high-speed internet, an immersive technology lab, mentors and other resources to help bring their product or business idea to market.

Kricker Innovation Hub Program Director David Kilroy at the recent Startup Weekend Portsmouth. Photo: Aaron Payne, Ohio Valley ReSource

Those in the recovery process can apply the skills they learned in treatment, such as discipline, organization and independence to run their own business.

The hub’s goal is to foster these skills and bring in the recovery community without fear of judgment.

“They should feel just as included,” Kilroy said. “The outreach that we do to people that we know who are starting businesses, should apply to them as well. It’s about making them feel included in this community.”

Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource

Building Skills

The innovation hub builds on the skills people already have. Another program in Scioto County focuses on those who need more basic tools to reenter the workforce.

The Hughes Re-Entry Center, a program offered by The Counseling Center, Inc., has been helping justice-involved clients for almost two years.

People can be referred to the program if they have been convicted of charges or have pending charges related to their addiction.

Clients receive holistic services that include addiction treatment, housing and wellness programs.

The Hughes Re-Entry Center in Scioto County provides justice-involved people with basic tools to re-enter the workforce. Photo courtesy of The Counseling Center, Inc.

Administrative Director Nick Ferrara previously worked as a probation officer in the county for 19 years. During that time he learned employment is a big obstacle for sustained recovery.

“A lot of these guys don’t have an education, they don’t have a trade,” he said. “So they’re getting back into the community going back to the same environment they came from. And the vicious circle continues.”

The Scioto County Career and Technical Center, Scioto County Aspire and Mountwest Community and Technical College are three of the main educational partners with the program.

They offer clients GED classes and job training in fields that include electrical, plumbing and maritime deck work.

“As long as you have people sitting around unemployed, continuing with criminal behavior, drug use, that’s just going to continue to weigh society down,” Ferrara said.

The goal is to get these people the help they need and then get them back into the communities and their families.

“If we can get people substance abuse treatment, the mental health treatment they need, give them a trade and actually get them out in the workforce, that can only help the economic recovery,” Ferrara said.

Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource

Community Solutions

The crisis has so deeply affected the community in Portsmouth that many people now rally around those who were previously shunned due to the stigma surrounding addiction.

Quinones, who frequently speaks at events in the region, has kept tabs on the community since “Dreamland” was published. He’s pleased to see the resurgence in community pride.

“The antidote to opiates is not naloxone,” he wrote in a blog post last year, referencing the overdose reversal medication commonly known as Narcan. “It is community. Rebuilding community (in a million different ways) is crucial…I’m glad to see Portsmouth leading the way on that, too.”

Business leaders are realizing addiction recovery and economic recovery can work together. And a community once defined by its fall invests in its rise, together.

This is the second story in an occasional series exploring the links between addiction recovery and a recovering economy.

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