Holyoke addiction recovery center director shares insights with Pittsfield group

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PITTSFIELD — The director of the Hope for Holyoke Recovery Center told advocates for a similar state-funded facility in Pittsfield they should keep pushing for funding and stressing "you already have a huge advantage — you have a building and you own it."

Debbie Flynn-Gonzalez, who directs the peer-to-peer addiction recovery center in Holyoke — one of 10 in Massachusetts receiving state funding — said the treatment model has been proven highly effective and is receiving more recognition and funding as a necessary follow-up after clinical treatment.

She was invited to speak Thursday at City Hall by board members of the nonprofit that owns the George B. Crane Memorial Center on Linden Street, which already offers a range of peer-support meetings, events and activities and hopes to win designation as a recovery center and become eligible for state funding.

Mary McGinnis, a nurse who works at the inpatient McGee Recovery Center at the Berkshire Medical Center and a board member with the Crane Center, said she and others traveled to Holyoke to tour that center and learn about the operation and the funding support.

"I immediately knew we had to get Debbie here to speak to us," she said.

The Crane Center now operates daily primarily with volunteer help and donations from groups, businesses and organizations, but McGinnis said the hope is to secure new funding sources, hire staff and finish renovations to the second floor of the center to allow office space for service groups working in the recovery field.

Flynn-Gonzalez said she has worked for more than 20 years in the clinical areas of addiction treatment, including at a methadone center. She said she eventually came understand "the value of the peer intervention" in helping addicts find their own best route to sustained recovery.

Right from its founding, the Holyoke facility "was very much peer-driven," in that the members were asked to name the center. "It is so powerful; they take ownership right from the start," she said.

The peer intervention process involves members in recovery taking control of their lives and forming constructive relationships with others. "This gave me a whole new insight," Flynn-Gonzalez said, adding that it differs from the typical approach of a professional determining the best method to support someone in recovery.

She said peer support also is being recognized by government officials, lawmakers, clinical professions and medical personnel — and recently insurance companies — as a critical support process in addition to detoxification treatment or counseling.

"From what I know about Pittsfield, there certainly also is an epidemic here," Flynn-Gonzalez said, referring the increasing number of opiate and other addictions and fatal and nonfatal overdoses.

"People are scared," she said. "They want to stop, but they don't know what to do."

One reason peer intervention is successful, she said, is because fellow addicts in recovery know better than most counselors or other professionals what an addict is experiencing at various stages of recovery, relapse or treatment.

The process also is cost-effective, she said, both in terms of providing support and in heading off the need for expensive interventions following the life crises that addiction causes for the person and his or her family and friends.

Flynn-Gonzalez said she and her husband also personally experienced addictions for a number of years and had to use trial and error to develop a recovery method that worked for them. Peer intervention can help someone work through that more easily and provide the sense they are not alone in the struggle, she said.

Concerning the Holyoke center, she said, "No decisions are made without the peers," who meet as a group twice a month and also come to the center for events, recovery group sessions or other reasons. The center is open seven days a week.

Flynn-Gonzalez said members also advise on staff hiring and undertake tasks like creating a mission statement for the center, developing rules of conduct for members, and deciding on an events calendar and on which speakers to invite.

"It is a very reciprocal process," she said. "That's what works in a peer program — they support themselves."

The center had about 250 people who became members during the first year of operation and another 100 who visited, she said.

Besides Flynn-Gonzalez, there is a peer support specialist, a volunteer coordinator and community resource specialist, as well as recovery coaches who receive training in that role and are paid on a per diem basis.

Alex Fidalgo, who directs the recovery coaching and peer support efforts, also spoke Thursday. He said coaching involves treating a recovering addict as a person and helping them work toward wanting to make a decision to change their behavior.

He and Flynn-Gonzalez said the process stresses that there is no one method of recovery that will work with everyone.

"It's respect for multiple pathways to recovery," she said.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.

More information ...

Anyone interested in learning more about the Crane Center programs and recovery meeting events there, or about how they can help secure funding or otherwise support the center, should call 413-464-2127. The Crane Center website is at www.thegbcmc.org.


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