ATLANTIC CITY — Trained coaches with the Recovery Force of Atlantic County learned Wednesday that one of their friends who had been struggling with addiction had died by suicide.
It’s a horrific outcome to a problem they say they couldn’t sit back and watch worsen.
“I consider Atlantic City the Calcutta of America,” said Isabel Halpin, a coach and coach trainer. “We’re trying to build a tribe of people, a community of people, that are sick and tired of seeing people dying on the street.”
The volunteer group, in talks to rent office space above the old St. Michael’s Catholic Church, works without medical training on their own time, trying to fill in the gaps of substance abuse treatment and outreach. The team is comprised mostly of people who have struggled with substance abuse themselves who act as mentors — compassionate listeners with a Rolodex of treatment options — for those still struggling with addiction.
The group more than quadrupled their volunteer force in the beginning of March, adding 24 new trained “resource brokers” to the existing team of seven.
Those 24 new coaches join treatment specialists at recovery homes with the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office, AtlantiCare doctors, advocates and activists across the region tackling a growing problem in a struggling city. Police here seized more than double the amount of heroin in 2018 than the previous year. And a higher percentage of Atlantic County residents entered treatment for narcotics abuse in 2017 than in neighboring counties, state data show.
With all the options for treatment, they offer connections and a voice on the other end of the line when sobriety seems too hard.
“We come together with that common bond of being lonely, and feeling that despair,” said Valerie Alper, a recovery coach who has been sober since October, “and we can share with people who understand.”
Oftentimes they connect with addicted people through recovery court and family court, and they will set up tables at the courthouse starting at the end of April.
“Linking with women and men who have lost their children in family court, it’s important to us, because the children have advocates,” Catalano said. “The social service agency that oversees it is not necessarily understanding of the disease of addiction, and a lot of times it feels like continued punishment.”
Catalano, himself in long-term recovery for alcohol abuse, said the group has helped at least 50 families navigate recovery. He struggled with opioid addiction too, and his brother died five years ago from a prescription opioid overdose. Now, he envisions an army of coaches in the near future tackling the issue from every angle in the region, getting help to anyone who needs it.
The groups take a multi-pronged approach, with different treatments for different circumstances, using harm reduction tactics, and recommending everything from medication-assisted recovery to 12-step programs. Whatever helps, they say.
Alper and Christian Correa, another recovery coach, both teach yoga at the Leadership Studio on Tennessee Avenue, which offers Recovery Yoga on Tuesdays. Correa said yoga’s structured discomfort can provide a pathway for working through something cumbersome, such as recovery.
“When you’re comfortable with being uncomfortable, you’ve essentially won,” he said. “Once you start getting back into … physical fitness, or taking care of yourself … all it is is a tool in a tool belt.”
That’s illustrative of their holistic approach.
“You might have to crawl before you walk,” said Alper. “As long as we get something better each time out of it, then you’re in recovery.”
Catalano brings experience to his role. He did similar work in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“We were in the streets of Kensington like we will be in the streets of Atlantic City — making recovery accessible and possible for people and showing them hope,” he said. “Because we’re people who can give hope, because we’re evidence that recovery works.”
The next round of training for coaches will be in the first two weekends of May.
They had offices in Pleasantville and Brigantine since its inception in 2015, but are now looking to move into the resort to bring its recovery coaches to ground zero of the area’s opioid epidemic.
“Because we are really focusing on the blight in Atlantic City, we had to come here,” Catalano said. “We want to be where the healing’s needed.”