The Wright Center for Community Health and Luzerne County Community College Collaborate on Program for Certified Recovery Specialists

Seventeen students enrolled in the collaborative certified recovery specialist (CRS) credential program at Luzerne County Community College recently completed the educational component to become professionals in the recovery field. The students now are eligible to take the Pennsylvania Certification Board examination to become a state-certified CRS.

The Wright Center for Community Health and Luzerne County Community College worked in partnership on the program to train about 40 CRSs in the regional program with the assistance of grant funding from the Appalachian Regional Commissioner under its own INSPIRE initiative. The initiative is a regional partnership that provides recovery opportunities for growth, education and sustainable success.

Through the grant initiative, the new CRSs will obtain new employment or enhance their current positions and about 50 businesses will be improved through employee education and/or hiring of a CRS.

A CRS credential qualifies peers who are living in recovery with drug and alcohol substance use disorders to help others in their journey through the recovery process. Recovery specialists are able to share similar life experiences by offering insight into their own recovery process. These professionals acknowledge their lived experience as a person in recovery with colleagues, patients and others. Through certification and their unique experiences, CRSs are able to serve as role models, advocates and motivators for others to live a successful life in recovery.

Certified recovery specialists also advocate to reduce stigma, eliminate barriers, increase support systems and build community. Overall, the services aim to substantially improve an individual’s ability to sustain recovery and wellness.

The Wright Center for Community Health Project PROGRESS

The Wright Center for Community Health, along Luzerne County Community College, The Institute, the Northeast Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center and the Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance have joined together to reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorder by connecting people in recovery with recovery-friendly employers in the new community-based, recovery-to-work program, Project PROGRESS.

            Project PROGRESS is an acronym for Providing Recovery Opportunities for Growth, Education and Sustainable Success, which serves Northeast Pennsylvania counties, including Lackawanna, Luzerne, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming.

            Project PROGRESS is funded in part through a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission along with financial support from the five partner organizations. “The goal of the project is to reduce the impact of stigma related to recovery on employees, employers and the region. Often people connect recovery and substance use, which is true, but think bigger. Recovery is about coming into healthy ways of being. The impact of being in recovery is incredible and demonstrates hard work. Whole communities benefit when people are in recovery,” said Meaghan Ruddy, Ph.D., senior vice president of Academic Affairs, Enterprise Assessment and Advancement, and Chief Research and Development Officer for The Wright Center for Community Health. 

            In November 2020, Gov. Tom Wolf renewed for the 12th time his declaration that the opioid epidemic has placed Pennsylvania in a state health emergency. From 2015 to 2018, 1,149 people are reported to have died from opioid overdoses in the project’s six-county service area, according to OverdoseFreePA.

            “A community’s capacity to create anything at the community level will in large part rely on the robustness of that community’s understanding of a need and commitment to creating solutions to meet that need. Leadership and innovative organizations in the six counties of focus for Project PROGRESS are painfully aware of the impact the opioid crisis is having on our friends and neighbors,” said Dr. Ruddy.

            Yet, according to Dr. Ruddy, many community members lack an understanding of addiction as a chronic illness. In addition, health care workers default to stigmatizing the language of addiction when treating patients and many employers refuse to hire people in recovery. “This is all part of a structural misunderstanding of the tragic complexity of individuals struggling with addiction, and a lack of knowledge of the fact that individuals in recovery create communities in recovery,” she said.

Olyphant resident and deejay makes recovery his business

Earning money came easily for Jason McConnell from the time he was a teen, pulling in hundreds of dollars per night at area hotspots as a popular deejay.

The Olyphant native’s prospects sank fast, however, as a substance use disorder that first surfaced in high school began destroying his business relationships, his credit rating and his life. The lucrative weekend gigs declined, until finally one night the college dropout found himself playing music at one of the few spots that would still agree to hire him: a strip club.

Humiliated and dejected, he quit, left the club and drove straight to a liquor store. Before his Saturday night ended, McConnell, then in his mid-20s, had been charged with a DUI offense.

“That was really the turning point,” says McConnell, now 30 and sober for nearly six years. “The day after that DUI, I remember sitting in a rocker at my parents’ house, beneath the deck, and I felt so empty inside. That’s when I was like, ‘Let’s do whatever we have to do. I can’t live like this anymore.’”

For people like McConnell who are intent on overcoming a substance use disorder and leading a healthier life, the challenge often goes beyond dealing with the physical and psychological addiction. They also face financial hurdles, often because social stigma and other barriers prevent them from vying for desirable jobs or even entering quality educational and training programs. Their road to recovery becomes blocked, potentially resulting in poor outcomes, even relapse.

The Wright Center for Community Health – a Scranton-based provider of primary care, medication-assisted treatment and recovery-related services in Northeast Pennsylvania – recognizes how difficult it can be to get and stay sober, especially if a person struggles to find and maintain well-paying employment. That’s why The Wright Center and multiple partners began a regional initiative called Project PROGRESS.

The project, which was publicly launched in September 2022, aims to expand opportunities for people living in recovery to find meaningful and family-sustaining employment, including careers in the health care field. Fueled by grant funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the project’s promoters will engage with business owners and leaders across multiple industries to reduce the unfair stigma associated with substance use disorders and remove obstacles that prohibit workplace participation.

In McConnell’s case, his ability to earn money immediately after treatment – and while living in the vulnerable stage of early recovery – was hobbled by the lack of a college degree. But he had an entrepreneurial drive. He managed to slowly revive his deejay operation while also launching a cellphone repair service. Then, during a checkup at The Wright Center for Community Health, another job prospect emerged.

Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, The Wright Center’s president and CEO, who also had been McConnell’s longtime physician, knew about the impressive strides he had made toward changing his life for the better. “She said that I would be great for a position as a certified recovery specialist,” he recalls.

McConnell suspended business at his cellphone shop for two weeks so that he could complete the required training, then began work as a certified recovery specialist – a person who has gone through the recovery process and can serve as a mentor, role model and motivator.

“When I meet a new patient, I try to explain to them that I’ve been where they’re at,” he says. “The job involves a lot of talking about your personal experience and giving suggestions.”

Through the Project PROGRESS program, training to become a certified recovery specialist has been provided by Luzerne County Community College to dozens of individuals. More trainees are expected to soon enter the pipeline. Similarly, the Northeast Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center offers preparation to become a community health worker.

Thanks to McConnell’s support network and his steady employment, he was able after completing treatment to put his life on a whole new trajectory. He gradually restored his credit rating. He even turned his once-tarnished deejay business into a thriving moonlighting enterprise.

“When I got sober, I realized it was a second chance at being happy, being everything that I ever wanted to be,” he says. “And with a clear mind, you can go a long way.”

Regional Manufacturers Experience Dynamic Growth; Rebound Quickly with NEPIRC Assistance

The Northeastern Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center (NEPIRC) closed out its most recent fiscal year on June 30, 2021, with reports of dynamic growth and much faster than expected COVID-19 recovery among its manufacturing clients over the past year.

Throughout the past 12 months, NEPIRC assisted more than 400 manufacturers across northeastern, the northern tier and central Pennsylvania in responding to the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding their businesses. Of those companies, more than 100 received expanded services tailored to their unique circumstances and challenges. Citing client-reported data gathered through multiple independent sources and subsequently verified by the U.S. Department of Commerce, NEPIRC’s President and CEO, Eric Joseph Esoda, announced that those companies recorded $150.5 million in additional revenue over the past year as a result of NEPIRC’s assistance while also attributing $17.2 million in savings due to increased efficiency and productivity. Despite worldwide economic challenges throughout the latter half of 2020 and first six months of 2021, NEPIRC’s clients invested more than $22.1 million in expanding or modernizing their regional manufacturing facilities and were able to create and retain 2,045 good-paying area manufacturing jobs.

“The outstanding impacts that manufacturers are reporting from their engagements with NEPIRC are indicative of the industrial sector’s potential to drive our Commonwealth, and even our country, out of the economic uncertainties that the COVID-19 pandemic left in its wake,” said Mr. Esoda. “We’ve consistently held that our industrial sector is Pennsylvania’s best bet for real, consistent and sustainable economic recovery and expansion and, in fact, fuels growth in other sectors that rely upon manufacturing activity. These results prove that our manufacturers are roaring back to life and will once again drive our Commonwealth forward,” he added.

According to aggregate client data within NEPIRC’s year-end reports, 60% of the manufacturers NEPIRC assisted throughout the pandemic reported the avoidance of layoffs as a direct result of the advisement they received. A nearly equal number of clients (58%) credited NEPIRC with enabling them to retain customer relationships and sales that would have otherwise been lost by working with them to meet production requirements or find alternative suppliers when primary supply chains were disrupted by COVID-19. A full 40% of NEPIRC clients reported increased sales amidst the pandemic thanks to NEPIRC’s assistance in attracting new customers or pivoting into new markets – and over 30% of the companies that utilized NEPIRC’s services over the past 12 months created new manufacturing jobs within the region.

Across the nation, NEPIRC ended its fiscal year as one of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s top-performing Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) affiliates, particularly with respect to the number of companies it served throughout the pandemic and the levels of jobs its clients created and retained over the past year.