Hundreds of voluntary recovery coaches throughout the state of West Virginia are helping those in need of services that are often nonexistent or hard to access.

Greater Recovery and Community Empowerment (GRaCE), founded by president Rev. John Unger, taps into the “foundational aspect of instilling hope.”

Unger, also a WV Senator representing the 16th District (Jefferson and part of Berkeley County) noted, “We believe programs, initiatives, and institutions don’t transform people; people transform people.”

GRaCE started out as a three-church ministry for which Unger serves as pastor in Harpers Ferry. It began in response to a coalition called Pursuit of Happiness, which involved West Virginia University, Shepherd University, law enforcement, as well as St. John Lutheran Church, Camp Hill United Methodist, and St. John’s Episcopal Church.

“We started with the question of how can we increase wellness and happiness, and through community forums, came up with a concern for the opioid epidemic,” he explained. “We surveyed the community and found that depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness were triggers, and that people were self medicating to get rid of that pain, which created dependency on drugs. Then we asked, what are ways everyday people could help with this, which led the way to recovery coaches.”

Unger highlighted the similarities between those addicted to drugs and people in need of other types of recovery. “Two years ago, the West Virginia Recovery Coach Academy—now a part of GRaCE—went into areas in the state that were devastated by the floods and looked at long-term recovery. The epiphany we had there is that there isn’t much difference in recovering from a natural disaster or coming out of rehab or prison. We took those recovery concepts and are applying them to the opioid epidemic.”

In 2018, GRaCE has partnered with the WV Department of Education, trained educators, counselors, and nurses, and is now visiting schools. Currently GRaCE has trained over 400 recovery coaches statewide and has several hundred clients.


Rebuilding Damage

James Boyd, a disabled Vietnam veteran, and president of the Recovery Coaches Association of the Eastern Panhandle, joined up with GRaCE 18 months ago as a recovery coach to support and help save lives. A recovering addict himself, Boyd said he helps addicts mimic the behavior of someone successfully navigating recovery.

“I work with them one on one, walking them to resources they need, taking someone to a new job, taking them to emergency services where certified recovery coaches help them through detox, and setting them up in sober living facilities,” he acknowledged.

Donzell Gunn, another recovery coach also in recovery, started working with GRaCE a couple months ago. He is trained to work in emergency rooms and with people coming from rehab—focusing on a recovery plan and life skills.

“There’s a lot of damage to be rebuilt,” he said. “For example, if someone has a criminal history, they may not have a job history and have to learn to write a resume, how to fill out applications, learn interviewing techniques, or pay restitution to courts for fines in order to get their license. It could just be learning how to manage impulse. We meet people where they are.”

Donna Joy, who has 35 years of recovery under her belt, started working with GRaCE due, in part, to personal tragedies in her own life. “I’ve seen what addiction does to a community, and there is a shortage of mental health counselors in West Virginia,” she said.

Joy is starting a free recovery support group in Shepherdstown for anyone impacted or in recovery. Her motivation is simple: “It’s everyone’s responsibility to help.”

— For more information, find Greater Recovery and Community Empowerment (above) as well as West Virginia Recovery Coach Academy on Facebook, or (Training): and (Coaching):

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