25 Years of the Modern Recovery Community Organization (RCO)
Celebrating the Silver Anniversary of the First Recovery Community Services Program Grants
By Jeremiah Gardner
As I began to reflect recently on the tremendous value of recovery community organizations, a close friend sent a text that said it all…
“One of my managers hired a guy for our warehouse. Great guy. Veteran and struggling with sobriety. But he’s been clean for four months. I learned he lost his apartment a while back. He’s been sleeping in his car. VA resources are coming eventually but he’s been stuck in red tape for two months. I gave him contact information for Twin Cities Recovery Project. They got him a gas card and some food until he gets his first paycheck on Friday. Sounds like he’ll be attending meetings too. When he gets his check, he’ll be able to put down a deposit on an apartment. The dude was so broken when I last saw him Thursday. Just got off the phone with him (Saturday). He seemed renewed and hopeful. I honestly think Twin Cities Recovery Project saved his life.”
Wow. That powerful message came out of the blue from a friend who runs a large distribution center. He’s not in recovery himself and not immersed in the same world I am as a board member for Faces & Voices of Recovery and longtime leader at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. However, a few summers ago, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, my friend joined me and others in a series of Saturday morning bicycle rides dubbed the Ride for Justice and spearheaded by the Minneapolis-based recovery community organization Twin Cities Recovery Project (TCRP).
My friend apparently experienced enough on those rides to recognize three years later that a promising employee needed just what TCRP offers: empathy, a helping hand, connection and hope.
Today, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the federal government beginning to invest in recovery community organizations, we also know that more TCRPs are needed everywhere. The United States faces a relentless addiction and mental health crisis, and millions of Americans need help. Food, transportation, education, a job, a home, a community of support — these are important elements of any healthy life, and when substance use and mental health challenges are part of the picture, they become even more essential to recovery.
Recovery community organizations (RCOs) fill crucial gaps in our safety net, offering free services, quickly accessible in the community — often brought directly to people wherever they are. Beyond support for the basic needs noted, many RCOs also help supply communities with overdose reversal medication, train people to administer the medication, and establish collaborative linkages with other service providers, including primary and behavioral health care and harm-reduction agencies. In addition, RCOs advocate on behalf of those they serve and help cultivate diverse, vibrant cultures of recovery.
While there are hundreds of them in 2023, RCOs like Twin Cities Recovery Project were still a new concept in 1998, when the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment awarded the first round of Recovery Community Support Program grants (thanks to the leadership of pioneers like Dr. H. Westley Clark, Cathy Nugent and David Mactas among others). Initially designed to organize the recovery community in support of public education, stigma reduction and policy change, the grant program changed focus in 2002. It was renamed the Recovery Community Services Program and began supporting organizations that provide services and enable peers in recovery to help others move into, or sustain, long-term recovery themselves. The central tenet remained the same: people with lived experience have a unique motivation and ability to help others.
Many of the initial 12 grantees are still operating today — leaders in peer recovery services and recovery advocacy — including:
- Association of Persons Affected by Addiction (Dallas, Texas)
- Connecticut Community of Addiction Recovery
- Recovery Alliance of El Paso (Texas)
- Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations Alliance (PRO-A)
- Pennsylvania Recovery Organization — Achieving Community Together (PRO-ACT), founded by the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania
- Recovery Consultants of Atlanta (2000)
- Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance (Virginia)
- White Bison, based in Colorado and bringing culturally based healing to Indigenous people nationwide by facilitating the Wellbriety Movement
Three years after RCO funding was initiated and mobilization of recovery advocates began to gain steam, the national advocacy nonprofit Faces & Voices of Recovery was born at a recovery summit in St. Paul.
Over the past 20+ years, that initial spark has propelled additional funding streams and sustained growth in not just RCOs but also: recovery community centers, recovery homes, recovery schools and school-based programs, alternative peer groups, recovery churches and ministries, recovery cafés and clubs, recovery films and other media, family recovery organizations, recovery advocacy organizations, arts- and wellness-oriented recovery organizations, recovery support groups, and a variety of recovery and recovery-adjacent industries. Faces & Voices of Recovery also launched the national Association of Recovery Community Organizations, which was broadened and renamed this year the Alliance for Recovery Centered Organizations so that it could encompass all of the types of organizations mentioned.
Of course, the funding of RCOs was not the beginning of recovery advocacy, mutual aid, or recovery-oriented services. Abstinence-based Native American religious and cultural revitalization movements date back to the 1730s. In the mid-1800s, the Washingtonian temperance movement was organized by and for those recovering from alcoholism. Keeley Leagues — a sort of aftercare group for those who received treatment at franchises called Keeley Institutes in the late 1800s and early 1900s — grew to more than 370 chapters nationwide and were involved in public advocacy.
The founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 and its rapid growth starting in the 1940s then planted the seeds for much that followed. Not only was it a grassroots mutual aid recovery organization with governing principles that have kept it sustainable to this day, but its impact inspired people in recovery (National Council on Alcoholism founder Marty Mann was a hugely influential example) to advocate for each other and those “still suffering.” In the 1940s, AA also inspired the birth of a new field of addiction treatment (led and proliferated over the ensuing decades, most notably by the Hazelden Foundation, now the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation) in the void created by a health care industry that wanted little to do with people affected by addiction. The new treatment field — closely connected to, and integrated with, the growing Twelve Step recovery movement — was indeed a creation and reflection of the recovery community. And it naturally engaged in public education, research and advocacy, giving rise to prevention services as well.
In the late 1970s, America experienced a brief burst of public figure-enhanced recovery advocacy with events like Operation Understanding and FreedomFest 76, followed by the well-documented journey of former First Lady Betty Ford, whose recovery and advocacy began in 1978 and led to the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center. Among other notable public figures at this time were U.S. Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa, actor Dick Van Dyke, and actress Mercedes McCambridge, to name just a few.
Over time, the recovery community grew so large and diverse (including many who followed different paths and experienced recovery in different ways) that it began to establish services and a voice independent of treatment, prevention, the Twelve Steps or any particular path or spokespeople. And, in this very abbreviated historical overview, that’s where the story picks up in 1989: with the federal government’s designation of National Recovery Month , which we still celebrate every September, and its investment in recovery community organizations nine years later. A thousand figurative flowers began to bloom afterward, and key contributions like the 2013 film The Anonymous People and the 2015 Unite to Face Addiction rally on the National Mall became galvanizing forces, accelerating the growth of America’s recovery culture. There also were legislative victories along the way — including the Hughes Act, “Parity” law, Affordable Care Act, CARA, 21st Century Cures Act and SUPPORT Act, among others.Today, the federal government even has an Office of Recovery.
In the absence of all that history, Twin Cities Recovery Project, established in 2016, would likely not exist and could not have helped save the life of my friend’s colleague.
So, during National Recovery Month 2023, let’s make a special point to celebrate 25 years of the modern recovery advocacy organization and, at the same time, remember we need to sustain and empower many more. To help the millions in need, our movement must become a mainstay — with recovery services and recovery advocacy a robust, vibrant part of American health care, social services, communities and culture.
Happy anniversary RCOs and thank you!
Jeremiah Gardner is Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and serves on the Board of Directors, Faces & Voices of Recovery.