Back to the Future – Volunteer Edition

I-heart-volunteersBill White, on the lost story of the more than 14,000 volunteers counted in a 1976 addiction workforce survey.

What that story would reveal if it were fully told would be six striking facts.  First, volunteers made up a significant portion (nearly a quarter) of the addiction treatment workforce of the early 1970s.  Second, many early programs, because of the limited financial funding of that period, could not have functioned without those volunteers.  Third, nearly all of those volunteers were individuals and family members in recovery, including former patients and their families treated within these facilities.  Fourth, those volunteers, along with the high percentage of persons in recovery among the paid staff, brought a level of recovery representation in the addiction treatment milieu that had never existed before nor has existed since.  Fifth, this recovery-infused milieu provided powerful testimony–living proof–of the potential for long-term personal and family recovery.  Recovery volunteers infected the treatment environment with faces and voices of recovery that exerted an unmeasured but contagious effect on recovery outcomes, above and beyond the treatment philosophies and techniques of these programs. And it provided human connections to processes of mutual identification that led many people into the rooms of mutual aid fellowships that would support their recoveries long after memories of their treatment had faded.  Finally, capitalizing on the “helper principle,” such volunteerism bolstered the recovery of the volunteers as much as it stirred the recovery germ within those being treated.

As commercialization and professionalization crept into the field, the volunteers were ushered out. (I had the opportunity to train as a volunteer at a freestanding treatment program just before it was merged into a hospital unit.)

Bill closed with the following observation on the re-emergence of volunteer programs.

Now in 2014, as treatment programs seek to increase their recovery orientation and rebuild lost connections to the communities they serve, proposals for the creation of volunteer programs are again afoot.  History does have a way of repeating herself and perhaps this time, we will recapture those lost lessons about the power of volunteer service.

We’re seeing this too, but there are a couple of worrying factors.

First, many programs just don’t trust or respect recovering people and their capacity to support clients in the initiation and maintenance of their recovery. Here’s a passage from an Addiction Professional article that advocates for volunteer programs with a wariness that insinuates suspicion and condescension.

Most of the time these are closed meetings for patients only, but some treatment programs also permit the local recovering community to hold regular AA/NA meetings at their facility, and some even allow their current patients to attend those meetings with staff supervision. While both of these arrangements can have their benefits, I would not recommend the latter because of security issues that occur when mixing members of the general community with current patients, even when this is supervised.

A treatment center should be certain of who from AA/NA will be leading the meeting. One would want to exclude recently discharged patients. While well-meaning, they do not have the experience in recovery needed to handle this type of meeting on their own. It is recommended that the volunteer have at least two years of sobriety with regular 12-Step attendance.

Also, centers want to avoid having new people show up each week. I would suggest not allowing anyone except the designee unless it has been arranged in advance. It is also a good idea to assign a staff member to sit in on the weekly meeting with the volunteer. This person also could serve as the volunteer’s designated contact.

Second, many of these efforts to engage volunteers are attempts to generate billable services, while others are seeking to professionalize recovering people to fill roles that were probably once filled with volunteers.

Let’s hope that programs seek to re-create these volunteer programs in ways that serve clients, the volunteers themselves and the recovering community. It can be done. It was done.

P.S. – While writing this, one of our staff posted an appreciation for a volunteer for the time she spent with a client who was having a bad night. I’m grateful I work at Dawn Farm!

One thought on “Back to the Future – Volunteer Edition

  1. I fully agree with the Bill White article on bringing back volunteers into an active role in recovery .I for one worked in and ran a treatment facility for close to 9 years in the 1970’s and we would not have existed without our volunteers. Volunteers were able to contribute in many ways as we just didn’t have the man power to do all that was required to run a treatment facility and do all the other tasks associated with it. So I hope this is a direction we go in


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