Orcas Island’s Recovery in Community making a difference in its first months

A pilot program for those needing substance or mental health assistance is already exceeding expectations.

Recovery in Community, which trains volunteers in tasks like enrolling someone into a rehab program, scheduling therapy or finding housing, has seen 14 clients since its launch in August 2019, which is nearly double what organizers projected. Janine Heimerich is the paid coordinator who pairs advocates with clients, around half of whom are showing “clear progress” in their recovery process.

“I am actually very thrilled with that. It means we are doing something right and that feels good. That’s a much better result than most recovery programs,” Heimerich said. “We know when someone is still moving in the right direction. We are not here to be a cure for them, but we can track it and know which of our clients here on Orcas are still on the right path and which have fallen off.”

Those who grapple with mental health issues or addiction can feel overwhelmed by the prospect of finding help. For years, a small group of islanders has been quietly assisting struggling community members by encouraging a visit to Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, signing them up for health insurance, getting them to a legal appointment or simply sitting down with a cup of coffee to chat. The goal of Recovery in Community is to create a more structured program to help islanders gain access both to social services in the region and community connections on the island.

The program received funding from the Orcas Island Community Foundation during its annual grant cycle last year as well as from music benefit concerts led by Jim Connell, who played a key early role in the initiative. It will run for nine months after which time an evaluation — complete with case studies — will determine whether or not RIC will continue.

Peter (not his real name) sought help from RIC this past August, and he will be sober six months on Feb. 8. In his late 30s, Peter began drinking and smoking marijuana heavily when he was 16 and tried hard drugs “here and there” since high school.

“Once you get to a certain point, even if you have a drug of choice, you’ll take what you can get — heroin, meth, cocaine, opiates,” he said.

This past summer, Peter had taken a break from hard drugs but was still drinking and smoking pot.

“Like many addicts, I convinced myself that I could manage with just weed and alcohol, but that just adds fuel to the flames,” he said. “I had a handful of really on edge nights with alcohol — bottom of the abyss kind of nights. During one of these evenings, I started googling for help on Orcas and got a link to Community in Recovery. I sent them a brief 2 a.m. message. Within 24 hours, I received an email back.”

Peter met with an advocate, who helped him find recovery meetings and a therapist.

“The first 60 days were quite a bit, and if it wasn’t for the resources and the manner in which they were presented to me, without a doubt I would not be sober right now,” Peter said. “If there hadn’t been someone there to have a coffee with and talk to or go to a meeting with, I would have fallen back.”

He calls RIC a program of “rigorous honesty” and says the Orcas recovery community is extremely supportive and provides a level of accountability that would not be found in a larger town.

“It’s still a struggle but things are slowly starting to return to me,” Peter said. “There are all these elements to life that normal people take for granted that you get so out of touch with as an addict. I am treasuring those little things as they pop up. For the past four to six months, for the first time in 15 years, I have been able — without question or having to hustle —to pay rent. … I am thinking about things like planning for the future — even just the concept of a future. When you are an addict, it’s about each high.”

RIC receives referrals from the Orcas Community Resource Center, local churches and medical offices, but Heimerich says most of their calls come directly from those in need. RIC’s number is 360-317-3119 and Heimerich covers the line 24 hours a day. She can also be reached at coordinator@ricorcas.com or visit www.ricorcas.com for more information. All referrals and calls are 100 percent confidential. RIC’s clients have ranged from 18 to 60 years old primarily seeking assistance for alcohol dependency although, as Heimerich points out, drug use and mental health issues “go hand-in-hand.”

“We’ve stepped up alongside them as accountability partners,” she said. “When an alcoholic or an addict makes the choice to go into detox, we have to strike when the iron is hot. The biggest challenge along the detox end and treatment is that being on an island we don’t have the ready resources to get somebody directly into detox or treatment. Different facilities require different referrals processes. … Generally, it requires an assessment at Compass Health in Friday Harbor. We help facilitate getting them over there.”

RIC provides personal support and advocacy to these community members who are not currently connecting with available community services and support. RIC helps these clients to access a variety of professional and volunteer services and support — medical, mental health and drug/alcohol counseling and treatment, basic needs, companionship and fellowship — during times of critical need and transition.

“We’ve seen some amazing successes,” Heimerich said. “We’ve also seen some heartbreaking cases where, as we in the recovery say, somebody ‘went back out.’ They have more research to do. But that is to be expected. …We are not trying to take the place of any other resources, we are just trying to fill in the cracks between one agency and another. Most of us are members of the recovery community.”

Connell says RIC’s most urgent challenge is to find a better way to assist clients who aren’t in imminent danger to themselves but still need a safe and secure environment to receive help — even if they don’t realize it.

“That requires intervention on the part of state and county law enforcement and/or mental health agencies,” Connell said. “Ironically and potentially tragically, to the extent RIC volunteers alleviate the immediate danger these individuals and our community face, by the time the agencies make their assessments, the person is no longer visibly in the same level of crisis. We have seen the three of our clients who we requested be mandated into safe and secure environments and were not, return to their desperate and dangerous state within hours or days of our request being denied.”