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Susan “Suzie” Walker executive director of Turning Point of Windham County, is leaving that position after 13 years.

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Longtime Turning Point leader gives notice

Susan ‘Suzie’ Walker, the executive director of the recovery center, one of 12 in the state, notes the challenges of keeping peers safe from Covid while they are trying to stay safe and free from substance abuse, too

BRATTLEBORO—Turning Point of Windham County is making a significant turn itself, as 13-year Executive Director Susan “Suzie” Walker leaves that leadership role.

Not all at once, however.

Walker’s leaving will be a transition process, as she is at the heart of Turning Point, to ensure continuity and community. The job will be advertised in the next several weeks, and her role is expected to be filled in early 2022.

“I’ve decided to step away from my director role and resume textbook publishing work, which I’ve continued throughout my tenure here,” says Walker.

Walker will assist with the new director’s entry, staying part time until the new person is up to speed. “I’ll be in my role for a few months as we recruit, interview, and onboard a new person,” she says.

She’ll be working with the staff “to document key information and processes for the new director. Over this pandemic period, we’ve kept reinventing our staffing model — I think we’re at Turning Point 6.0 at this point — and we need to ensure that we capture all policies and communication flows.”

Walker says she tells people that she is an “accidental nonprofit director” because she was “blithely working in the publishing world,” when way led onto way, and now she wants to “shift the balance” back.

When she started at the peer-guided recovery center, one of 12 in the state, Walker says the center was “strapped,” behind on bills and rent. But then the landlord called and said he’d cut the rent in half for the next six months.

“And I’m like, ‘Yes, please,’” she says with a laugh.

“I’ve been doing this for almost 13 years and that’s a long time to do this kind of work. It’s been incredibly meaningful, and I value it so much — I couldn’t even measure it. I feel good about having rebuilt our staffing model, and I just feel a little restless and want to move on.”

While she said publishing “has its perils and frustrations,” she gets an assignment, and it’s done.

By contrast, “there’s a lot of uncertainty and unpredictable things” in managing the recovery center, she says.

“It’s just a long time to have done it, and for Turning Point, it’s an exciting thing to have someone come in to take it to what its next chapter might be,” Walker observes.

‘Tremendous success and growth’

Brattleboro Police Capt. Mark Carignan, who serves as the chair of Turning Point’s Board of Directors, says Walker “has overseen tremendous success and growth at the center.”

That has included buying and rehabilitating its now- permanent home at the corner of Elm and Frost streets in 2014, and expansion of programs to include recovery coaching at the emergency department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, the Project CARE coaching partnership with the Brattleboro Police Department, a program for Families in Recovery, and a partnership with the Voices of Hope in Wilmington to expand rural recovery supports.

“She has enjoyed rich partnerships with many providers and businesses to expand awareness of substance use disorder and share the message of hope,” Carignan says in a press release.

“In the community at large, she has been a tireless and effective advocate for recovery and recovery services,” he continues. “Suzie has overseen the growth of our Brattleboro center from a small organization with a handful of volunteers to an entity with nearly 20 paid employees and a half-million-dollar budget.”

Walker says her work and that of staff members and volunteers is unique, in part because they are also stakeholders and constituents.

Prior to Covid, Turning Point had many volunteers who would have found the organization or been referred there due to personal or family issues when a placement there might help, says the director, herself 23 years sober.

She notes that training and workforce development have always been a big part of services offered, and she says that the work can be stressful.

“It’s hard work to begin with, because compassion, fatigue, and secondary stress are always factors, so we always watch our staff members and say, ‘Your personal recovery and wellness come first,’” Walker says.

“We’re not providers,” she adds. “We’re peers in recovery who help others, so we want to be supportive of our team.”

Keeping safe from Covid and substance abuse

The pandemic year changed the very nature of Turning Point’s work.

“The past year has been very complicated,” Walker says. “Our center is a safe gathering place for people seeking or in recovery, but we couldn’t gather, so we had to adopt remote services, and we did a whole lot more outreach.”

Even what could be done on site had to match with Covid mandates, and the number of volunteers decreased as folks didn’t want to or couldn’t gather at one location in close quarters.

“We say the connection is so key to recovery,” says Walker. “Having a community is so important. While keeping people safe from Covid, it kind of got in our way of keeping people safe from substance abuse situations.”

Yet as challenging as 2020 was, she describes it as “a fascinating year” — one that also gave Turning Point and its staff “an opportunity to really look at things.”

As a result of the isolation in lockdown, “we got out and met people where they were,” Walker says.

Meeting people where they are, in fact, is a movement in the recovery field and something Walker strongly believes in, taking the program to Great River Terrace, the Chalet, and other housing sites around Brattleboro.

“Whatever is working in your recovery to keep you well, we want to support and learn about it,” she says, adding that for several months Turning Point had a state grant to be one of four centers with a pilot program to offer recovery support in a substance-free hotel or motel.

“We didn’t have a whole motel, but we had nine rooms in one and partnered with economic services divisions, Groundworks, and the police,” she says. “It was very worthwhile.”

For a while, Walker says, “it was actually invigorating and intriguing to say we have the opportunity to rebuild a recovery center, so what should it look like?”

However, the downside has been equally powerful.

“People were so vulnerable. We saw, sadly, a lot of people with long-term wellness and recovery relapse — so many overdoses, although not necessarily deaths,” she says.

“It was so hard to connect with people and for people to connect with the services, but we just felt it was so essential — and so we never stopped being busy,” Walker adds. “People still wanted to get help in that way.”

As with other businesses during the pandemic, Turning Point had to be “innovative about how to connect” with its clientele and move offsite.

To that end, the group now has recovery coaches who work out of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s emergency department.

Turning Point also partners with community policing — all “allies,” as Walker puts it. The program is comprised of “folks on the journey, including people in the community who want to make a difference and learn,” in addition to the police and BMH personnel. “We need everybody.”

And that includes more paid staff members than ever before.

Pre-pandemic, Turning Point had 16 to 18 volunteers working 200 to 250 hours per week to keep the doors open. During the peak Covid months, volunteers were fewer so the paid-staff team has been built up.

“We’re starting to see volunteers back here again and the Center is busier, but it’s really changed the nature of our team,” Walker says. “We have about 20 staff members now.”

With more programs and partners and people to manage, the new director will have a lot on their plate, but Walker believes the rewards of this work will continue.

“I think any new leader who walks in the door here will be abundantly supported,” she says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #638 (Wednesday, November 10, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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