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Turning Point Recovery Center’s new headquarters on Elm and Frost streets in Brattleboro.

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Turning Point returns to downtown Brattleboro

Addiction-recovery center, once again on Elm Street, sees a sharp increase in visitors

BRATTLEBORO—About four years ago, in search of lower costs, Turning Point of Windham County moved from downtown.

Just one year later, administrators of the addiction-recovery center began plotting their return.

The problem, Executive Director Suzie Walker recalled, was that “the people who needed us most couldn’t get to us.”

The return to downtown worked even more quickly than anyone had imagined, as the number of Turning Point guests and meeting attendees jumped from 661 in June 2014 to 1,257 in June 2015. And Walker sees those numbers as a positive: More people in recovery, she reasons, means fewer people pursuing destructive behaviors.

“This is a very joyful building to be in,” Walker said. “I think sometimes people don’t have that idea. But these are people who have already made lifestyle choices, because they want something more out of life.”

On Sept. 11, there was plenty of that joy to go around as Turning Point’s staff and volunteers joined Gov. Peter Shumlin and others to formally dedicate the center’s new, renovated headquarters inside a former private residence at Frost and Elm streets in Brattleboro.

The governor, who gained national attention in 2014 for dedicating his “state of the state” speech to drug-abuse issues, used the recent gathering to give an impassioned speech about Vermont’s continuing fight in that arena.

“We’re facing the devil head-on and saying, ‘We know we have a problem,’” Shumlin said. He pointed to efforts to better handle people with substance-abuse issues when they enter the court system, and he also said state officials are working to decrease waiting times for addicts who are seeking treatment.

No longer can the state say, “Your disease is not as important to us — get in line,” Shumlin said.

Peer to peer

At Turning Point, there’s no such problem. Those recovering from addiction don’t need an appointment, and they don’t have to worry about insurance or money — all services are free.

“We’re here, and you’re welcome,” Walker said in an interview prior to last Friday’s event. “We’re actually a solution to some of the other waiting lists.”

Turning Point administrators eschew any talk of “counseling,” and they shun the term “clinic.” Instead, “we’re a safe gathering place for peers in recovery,” Walker said.

Services include group sessions, movie nights, and recovery meetings, with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous also using the facility for gatherings.

The only paid staff is Walker and a part-time volunteer coordinator. Turning Point’s volunteers, the organization’s annual report says, are “the keystone of our work”; the center touts its recovery coaches and trained peer workers who offer daily support sessions.

Walker is a strong believer in the power of “lived experience” — people who are recovering from addiction helping others who are seeking their own way through it.

Among those peer staffers is Jedediah Popp, who at the event told of his years-long struggle with heroin and his discovery of new purpose as a recovery coach with Turning Point.

“I like to say, hope is the catalyst in recovery. You can’t have recovery without hope, without faith, without the will,” Popp said, adding, “I want to give back what was freely given to me, and that’s why I’m here.”

Emotional speeches ruled the day, including one from Rob Simpson, the Brattleboro Retreat’s president and chief executive officer.

Simpson recalled his step-grandfather’s murder at the hands of addicts and his grandmother’s subsequent descent into depression and alcoholism. Eventually, his parents “felt it was no longer safe for me to be with her,” Simpson said, and he never again saw the grandmother with whom he shares a middle name.

“The backdrop for me is that story,” Simpson said. “It changed my life. It set a destiny that I had no idea I would walk into.”

Had his grandmother had services such as those offered by Turning Point and the Retreat, Simpson said, “I think her life would have been different. I think I might actually have known where she was.”

Turning Point is a “key partner” for the Brattleboro Retreat, Simpson said. For example, the organization provides some group-counseling services on-site at the hospital, and Simpson said the organization also acts as a “bridge to the community” for those who have been staying at the Retreat.

“We know that people need to have support in any job they do and in any life they lead — very few people lead it alone,” Simpson said after Friday’s ceremony. “And when you’re suffering from the disease of addiction [...] you need support.”

Simpson added that, when it comes to Turning Point’s new home, it’s “much better here.”

By that, he meant the ease of access for those who need the organization’s services, but he also was referring to the big yellow house’s visibility in town.

“It also is a symbol — recovery is here in town. Brattleboro supports this,” Simpson said.

Plotting its return

Turning Point’s return, however, was not a foregone conclusion just a few years ago. The organization had relocated from downtown to a facility off Putney Road in the northern part of Brattleboro in August 2011 — just before Tropical Storm Irene struck — and administrators were seeing significant savings due to lower rent.

But fewer and fewer people were walking through the front door, rendering those savings pointless.

“We made sure we were on the bus route and everything,” Walker said. “It just turned out to be not enough [...] and so after the first year, we formed a relocation task force. It took nearly a year to start that group and find a place.”

The house at the corner of Frost and Elm was vacant, having been damaged by Irene’s floodwaters.

“It initially was available and it looked great, but it was $164,000, and it was a fixer-upper,” Walker recalled. “We said, ‘We can’t do that.’ So we kept looking, but the price on this place went down.”

Eventually, Turning Point acquired the home at auction for just $76,650.

Renovations commenced, with a heavy reliance on volunteer work. That labor came from a variety of sources including the Department of Corrections and the Department of Labor as well as from “volunteers in the recovery community.”

Walker said one person in recovery, who has asked for anonymity, devoted 30 hours weekly to the project for an entire year.

There were “contractors and vendors who worked with us on prices, who didn’t add markups to material,” she recalled. And the property’s landscaping plan came courtesy of “permaculture” specialist Cimbria Badenhausen.

“Our whole story of this building has been one of serendipity,” Walker said.

One example was when, in summer 2014, crews discovered that “the foundation was more damaged than we ever thought it was.” Repairs would require additional time and money, but then word came that Turning Point would be getting twice the federal disaster-recovery funding ($40,000) than originally anticipated.

A USDA-guaranteed loan through Brattleboro Savings & Loan was a key part of the project’s financing, as were contributions from Turning Point itself. Other cash came from the Thomas Thompson Trust, the state of Vermont, Brattleboro Retreat, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

In the end, the project cost more than $325,000, Walker said. But she sees the process as well worth the money and headaches, given the number of people streaming through the door.

Administrators cite another key indicator of growth: In June 2014, 260 people attended 12-step meetings at Turning Point, and there were 525 such attendees in June of this year.

“It was unfortunate we had to move outside downtown, but because we did, people clamored for us to come back,” Walker said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #323 (Wednesday, September 16, 2015). This story appeared on page A3.

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