Former addicts work as peer recovery coaches to help guide others in Canton Township

Women use experience, recovery to get others on same path

CANTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. – Answering the call when an addict needs help is much more of a passion than a job for Allison Herrst and Michele Baldori.

That's because both women have been there and know what addiction can do to a life. It can destroy it.

Now they are certified peer recovery coaches for Growth Works in Canton Township, mentoring others struggling to get into recovery.

Baldori said she was in and out of active addiction for 20 years.

"I've been addicted to everything," Baldori said. "If I had to pick a drug of choice, it would be heroin. I've lost everything, I've lost cars, I've lost jobs, I've lost houses, relationships. money, all my material possessions, I've lost."

She credits Growth Works for helping her stay in long-term recovery.

"When I first started my own journey, I wasn't working," Baldori said. "I was a single mom of four and I just -- I had no idea where to go next. I didn't know how to support my family. I didn't know how to get back into school. I had a lot of debt. There were a lot of things that were weighing over my head that I accumulated in active addiction over 20 years."

Herrst said she started getting arrested for the first few times when she was 18. She went to her first treatment center, cleaned up her act and went to college, but then became addicted to pain pills after a back injury.

She couldn't get off the pain pills on her own.

"I ended up turning to heroin because it was a lot cheaper and easier to get than the pills that I was addicted to and, you know, my life went downhill really, really fast after that and I became homeless," Herrst said.

"My moment of clarity, I was living in a dope house in Detroit and I had been left alone in this house for, it was probably a good 24 hours," Herrst said. "It was long enough for me to, like, start going into withdrawals and start kind of sobering up and realizing exactly where I was at, you know. I think I had been so high for so long that I didn't realize, like, the kind of situation I was in."

Herrst called her family for help. She was in her window of willingness to get into recovery.

Baldori and Herrst now reach others in that same moment.

"Addicts and alcoholics have this 24 hour window we call it, and the willingness that we have doesn't last very long and we need to get to them when they're in that state of desperation," Baldori said. "If we can get to them within that 24 hours we can usually get them to the next level of care that they need and we can get them into treatment before that window closes."

"We do get calls in the middle of the night," Herrst said. "We get calls during the day, just whenever somebody ends up in their emergency room and request to see a coach, they will dispatch us to the hospital."

They work in the Rescue Recovery/Peer Recovery Coach Program. It involves Growth Works, St. Mary Mercy Livonia Hospital and 18 public safety departments within the Conference of Western Wayne, Wayne County Healthy Communities and the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Growth Works has 14 certified peer recovery coaches who respond to St. Mary Mercy Livonia hospital within 90 minutes of getting a call that someone might need help getting into recovery.

The program is voluntary and free to patients. Addicts are assigned peer recovery coaches who commit to working with them for up to a year's time. The coaches act as case managers, connecting addicts with services that can include inpatient treatment, medically assisted treatment, academic and employment support, life skills and 12-step support.

They meet the clients in the emergency room and assess where they are at -- they could be detoxing or already in the detox unit. Baldori said they either start a recovery plan right then and there or make an appointment for them to come to Growth Works and create their recovery goals and set them up with any services they need.

"We hope in connecting the patients with the coaches we can at least decrease the chances that they'll relapse," said Regina Bell, a licensed counselor who connected patients with coaches. "The thing that makes this program different is the intimacy of it and the immediacy of it, you know, there's a small window when an addict comes in and they know they want to get help we have to get in that window where they're open to receiving this."

Herrst said most clients don't have great living situations -- some of them don't have stable housing at all -- or jobs. They may not have income or are on disability. She said a lot of them don't have food in their fridge, or they might have kids that they need to feed or they don't have access to medical care.

Coaches help clients face the consequences of their addictions including any criminal charges.

"Oh, that's very important, you know, part of being in recovery is cleaning up the wreckage of our past, you know, and most of us don't get sober on a winning streak," Herrst said. "Most of us have a lot of baggage that we come in here with that we need help, and we don't really know where to go, what to do, and it can all seem very overwhelming when you take a look at all of these things that are on your plate. But it's stuff that has to be taken care of because I've seen people go back out because they don't deal with this stuff and it ends up coming back later."

"Because, obviously, what we've been doing up to this point in time hasn't really been working," said David Spivey, president of St. Mary Mercy Hospital. "I mean the problem is so immense that you've got to do some things differently then you've done before. Another strength of the program is it's got (the) law enforcement community, the judicial system and the health care community coming together to try to do some things differently, you know, to help stem the tide of this terrible problem."

The Rescue Recovery program began in April 2018, and since then, St. Mary Mercy Livonia has asked 790 patients if they would like help from a peer recovery coach.

Coaches have placed 83 percent of the patients they've seen in the emergency room into treatment or peer support services.

The program has expanded, and coaches are now on call with police departments in Canton Township, Livonia, Northville and Westland.

For Baldori and Herrst, being peer recovery coaches helps them as much as it helps others.

"It feeds my soul to be able to meet people where I was at and to watch them grow," Baldori said. "It's been an amazing experience. It's so rewarding. This particular job has been amazing. It's given me the opportunity to grow in my own recovery and it's given me the opportunity to pay my bills. I can't speak enough about what Growth Works has done for me."

"My passion is what I'm doing now, you know, helping other people recover," Herrst said.

Both are very focused on their own recovery, and say self-care is a big part of that process. That includes running together. Baldori also does meditation and loves to travel.

"I attend regular support groups," Herrst said. "I do this job. I have a power greater than myself that I rely on, that I put my faith in every day and I'm open about it, open about my recovery to other people because if I don't talk about it, then I feel ashamed about it, and I don't want to feel ashamed. I spent a lot of years living in guilt and shame due to my addiction, and I don't want to live like that anymore."

"This has been extremely beneficial to my recovery," Baldori said. "Being able to, you know, make it out of the battlefields and then go back and pull other soldiers off of the battlefield, as well, in this war that we're fighting. The effectiveness of one addict helping another is immeasurable."

The Rescue Recovery Program is funded by federal and state grants and with support from the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

If you would like more information on the Rescue Recovery program, click here. You can also call 734-495-1722.

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