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Substance Use Disorder—A Community Conversation

photo cred Jerry Monkman CTRiverBarn v2

When we started planning our Community Conversations Series, we looked forward to gathering an amazing group of speakers who could share their stories with fundholders to further empower our work together to close the opportunity gap in Vermont.

On October 8, 2019, our second event—“Substance Use Disorder: The Stigma, the Ripple, and How Vermont is Leading the Way”—was moderated by Fran Stoddard, a media producer for Vermont PBS, Vermont Public Radio, and WVNY-TV, who did an excellent job sparking a robust discussion with our panelists:

  • Kate O’Neill is a journalist covering the opioid crisis in Vermont for Seven Days whose obituary for her sister Madelyn (Maddie) Linsenmeir served as a tribute to her and so many others who struggle with addiction and was read by millions around the world through the power of social media.
  • Bess O’Brien is a filmmaker who produced and directed The Hungry Heart,” a documentary about the prescription drug crisis in Vermont.
  • Mickey Wiles is the founder and CEO of Working Fields, an employment agency for Vermonters looking for a second chance, who himself is in long-term recovery.
  • Dr. Mark Levine is the commissioner of health at the Vermont Department of Health.
  • Abby Holden and Jason Neumeister are past participants in the Writers for Recovery program.

As I reflect on the powerful evening we spent together, there are a number of things that resonated for me and pointed towards how philanthropy can be part of the solution to substance use disorder. A common theme throughout the conversation was the power of storytelling and the importance of listening to another’s life experience from a place of compassion and free of judgment. Just like everyone’s fall into addiction is different, so is their recovery. And, for an addict, recovery is not a destination. It’s their lifelong journey.

In addition to her work as a filmmaker, Bess O’Brien co-founded Writers for Recovery, to help individuals discover the power of the written word to process trauma, build self-esteem, and support healthy, sustained recovery. One of the writers Bess brought with her, Abby Holden, read from her poem about waking up in a homeless encampment with her brain craving “more, more, more, more” drugs and then ending her poem with waking up in a sunlit bedroom eager to start the day in recovery no longer at the mercy of the cravings in her brain. Abby’s life as an addict was all about satisfying her cravings. Now, her life in recovery is about endless possibilities including a career in occupational therapy. Her story of transformation is a reminder that with the right supports, programs, and services in place, people can recover and reclaim their lives—their true purpose and potential.

Kate O’Neill urged all of us to love and care for people who are addicted just as much as we love and care for our family members, friends, and neighbors who have similar chronic health conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. No one chooses to be an addict. The stigma and frequent isolation of substance use disorder can rob people of their voices, steal their humanity, and put them at great risk for relapse. Kate also reminded me of the toll addiction has on family members, many of whom harbor some sense of guilt and responsibility when a loved one becomes addicted or overdoses. What signs did they miss? What more should they have said? What should they have done differently?

Vermont’s core statewide strategy, the Hub-and-Spoke Model—recovery centers, high-intensity medically assisted treatment facilities, preferred providers, and residential programs—supports individuals in recovery. But more resources are needed, especially since at its root substance use disorder often begins as a family disorder. The number of youth that the state removes from the custody of families with substance use disorder is chilling, and it points to the urgent need for a holistic philanthropic approach to the challenge. Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, asked a provocative question: “Where does philanthropy fit in?” His four part answer was treatment, intervention/harm reduction, prevention, and recovery.

As philanthropists who want to bring people and communities together, we’re listening to the pain of addiction and the promise of recovery. We must respond quickly because there’s often only a brief moment when an individual is ready to start the recovery process. To be successful with treatment and recovery, we also must focus on the potential for those struggling with substance use disorder.

One of the reasons that the Community Foundation supports Working Fields—the staffing agency that hires and trains individuals in recovery—is because founder Mickey Wiles is pulling down barriers and false perceptions. He and the employers he works with have discovered that employees who are given a second chance and flexible scheduling options often turn out to be the most loyal and hard-working members of the team.

While there is still much work to be done, I came away encouraged by the progress we’ve made to date, hopeful for our community’s future, and confident that philanthropy will continue to play a significant role helping to reduce substance use disorder and narrowing the opportunity gap to help Vermonters achieve the promise of recovery.

Upcoming events in our Community Conversation Series include:

    Powerful Motivators to Giving
    November 2019
    Alternative Career Pathways
    January 2020

We’ll be scheduling more community conversations in 2020. If you’re interested in learning more about the series, please contact us at or give us a call at 802-388-3355.