Joining the fight: 26 graduate BPD’s Recovery Coach Academy

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BURRILLVILLE – It was two “grueling” weeks of examining their own biases and emotions, with the goal of learning how to help others, according to the program instructor.

And those who took part described it as a “life-changing” curriculum.

Graduates from northwest Rhode Island’s first Recovery Coach Academy celebrated the achievement in Burrillville this week, as a grateful police chief thanked them for joining the fight against addiction.

“You’re here to give of yourself to someone who is suffering,” Col. Stephen Lynch told the 26 recent graduates. “I don’t think there’s much more honorable than that.”

Burrillville Police Col. Stephen Lynch speaks to graduates from the Recovery Coach Academy

The program, funded in Burrillville through a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Health, teaches participants how to help others struggling with, or recovering from, addiction to drugs and alcohol.

“The fact that we had 26 people come forward and say ‘we want to be part of this,’ is just amazing,” said Michelle Harter, coordinator for the Burrillville Addiction Assistance Program.

Harter led the class, with meetings four hours a night for two weeks.

“I know I’m exhausted,” Harter said. “We’re pretty happy that it’s over tonight.”

“I couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” she added.

The BAAP program was started in response to an opioid epidemic that has affected both small towns and cities across the country over the past several years, but hit Burrillville particularly hard.  Lynch, who came to town from a career working homicides for the state police, was facing a spike in overdose deaths in 2015 and 2016, and found himself searching for ways to explain the tragedies to those who had lost someone.

“How do you get an answer for these families?” Lynch asked.

BAAP Coordinator Michelle Harter

His department hired Harter in hopes she could reach out to those struggling with addiction and begin to get a handle on the problem, along with Monica Blanchette, who addresses the same topic with youth, with a focus on prevention.

A year later, Harter has also found a way to get the community involved, training residents in how to help those struggling with addiction.

Participants in the town’s first academy varied across age groups, from high school students to grandparents, and came for a variety of reasons, with some having lost someone to drug addiction, and others in recovery themselves.

“We had people who didn’t know anything about recovery or addiction,” said Harter.

Several testified to how the experience had changed their perspective.

“This has been an interesting two weeks… definitely eye opening,” said graduate Keith McCarthy.  “We had a different point of view coming in.”

“I will use this as a tool to help people,” McCarthy said.

Harter hugs a graduate.

“I think people learned a lot about their insides,” said Harter. “I think people have learned a lot about their biases, and what they can do with their own life.”

“This is community activism at its best,” she said.

Anna Marie March said she’s brought the knowledge into her job as a paraprofessional at a high school, where she’s already seen results.

“The best thing about this course is starting to apply it,” said March. “This really is amazing. ”

John Phillips said the class opened his eyes to how much addiction affects a community.

“What I want to thank Michelle for, is the knowledge that this problem is so huge,” Phillips said. “It’s amazing how it doesn’t exist in daily conversation.”

“We have an addiction epidemic in town,” Harter agreed.

Lynch thanked the participants for their willingness to take part.

“You have helped us,” Lynch said.

“I believe you are going to save someone’s life and you will never know it,” Lynch added. “I welcome you to that fight – because it is a fight.”

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