September is National Recovery Month, a time to celebrate recovery and share stories about how substance use treatment and mental health services have helped people live healthy and rewarding lives.
So for this month’s Volunteer Spotlight, we are privileged to introduce you to Jennifer, a volunteer at Old Town Clinic who also identifies as someone living in recovery. We sat down with Jennifer to find out what makes the path of recovery so compatible with volunteerism, how her life has changed since finding sobriety, and what her volunteer experience at the clinic has been like so far.
Name: Jennifer Fresh
Position: Old Town Clinic Concierge
What are your volunteer duties?
I do whatever I can to make whoever is at the clinic more comfortable. In my experience, people at the clinic are typically not feeling well. A lot of patients probably have their own negative experiences with the medical system in the past. It can be a hard experience for a lot of people. I try to help put people at ease.
Sometimes that means helping people who have a hard time getting up and down the stairs. Sometimes I help them find their appointments. A lot of the times it’s just listening.
What drew you to Central City Concern?
I got sober at the end of 2007. For me and for a lot of people, service is a part of staying sober. I graduated nursing school recently and I feel that as a nurse with a little bit of sobriety, I can offer people the ear that they need or maybe just a little bit of hope.
I didn’t use any CCC services on my way to getting sober, but there were many years I didn’t get any health care or dental care so it’s nice to be on the other side. Some people I’ve sponsored have been through Hooper Detox Center. Some of the meetings I go to have people who have gone through Letty Owings Center. A lot of people I know have used other services here, too. I know that CCC has done great things for people.
I feel grateful and lucky to be able to put my hand out now.
How does volunteering inform your recovery? How does recovery inform your volunteerism?
One of the things that I learned when I first got sober is that when you’re in active addiction, everything turns inside yourself. Your focus is very small. It’s about me, my needs, my wants. And you have zero energy for what’s going on around you.
Drug use was a coping mechanism for me. So in the very beginning of my sobriety, when I wasn’t able to use that coping mechanism, there were a lot of days when I felt jump-out-of-your-skin uncomfortable.
When I got sober, I was taught to turn my focus outward. I had a wonderful sponsor who taught me that if I ever felt uncomfortable or terrible that I should just go say hi to somebody and see how I could help them.
My addict brain thought “how do I have time for [service]?” But each time, I realized that reaching out my hand makes me feel better while helping someone else. That’s what I got to learn and that’s what I get to re-learn every time I come to volunteer at the Old Town Clinic.
Fear kept me inside myself. It’s wonderful to reach out my hand now that I have something to share.
What did you expect when you first started volunteering?
Well, I can tell you what I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to be able to create trusting relationships with people. Honestly, I’m only there a few hours a week, but I do run into a lot of the same people. I feel like the interaction has gotten deeper and I think I’ve been able to gain some people’s trust which is so important with this population.
I feel like a lot of our clients are extremely vulnerable and they just need to be advocated for. I see a lot of people who are incredibly strong people who just have very tough circumstances. Inherently in that there’s hope. If we can meet people where they’re at, that’s where we’re going to make a difference. There’s no point being in denial about things and shaking our fingers because that absolutely helps nobody.
I just feel like all I can do is be that smiling face and reach out my hand.
Has anything surprised you?
It surprises me all the time how there’s still hope.
Even though I’ve gotten sober myself and have a nursing background, the types of challenges that CCC clients have to navigate and get through everyday still surprises me. It’s hard enough to have a chronic issue like diabetes or mental illness; those are, in themselves, very hard to manage. And when you combine that with homelessness, there are so many challenges.
You mentioned that you recently graduated from nursing school. Did recovery play a part in that pursuit?
I got clean when I was 33. I had no hopes or aspirations before that. I’d been using for most of my adult life and hadn’t done anything really significant.
When I got clean and sober, I had a little time to get my head straight and I felt like I had a clean slate. I got a little job, which kept me busy. Then I got a better job, and another. Little by little, my self-esteem and confidence started growing the more useful and accomplished I felt. I want to be of service to people. I want to help people, and use my experience. And I thought nursing would be a good way to do all that.
What would you tell someone who is hesitant about volunteering?
Volunteering is a small investment. It’s more than nothing. It’s something. It’s so cliché, but you literally get so much more than you put in. You get the feeling of usefulness which is better than anything.
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If you are interested in learning more about volunteering with Central City Concern’s health and recovery, housing, or employment programs, contact Eric Reynolds, CCC’s Volunteer Coordinator, at email@example.com.