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Hope, not heroin, found at Willimantic recovery center

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Windham — Hope, for some 800 visitors a month working to stay off drugs and alcohol, can be found in a storefront just over the Frog Bridge on Main Street in Willimantic, tucked between a jewelry shop and an alleyway.

The Windham Community Recovery Center, operated by the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery and a crew of volunteers, is "a safe haven," according to Jason Williams, 34, and Frankie DeJesus, 36, both eight months clean of drugs and volunteering their time to help others in recovery.

The CCAR also operates centers in Bridgeport and Hartford, all funded in part by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and is hoping to open one in New London, the county seat for a region that has been hit hard by opioid/heroin addiction.

The services are free to the public.

"People who walk in can get immediate access to someone to talk with, mentors who know how to find community resources, and a number of supports, like computer access and help with that, telephone support, and support groups and activities," said Deb Dettor, managing director of CCAR.

New London had a recovery center until a federal grant expired, according to Dettor.

She said it would cost about $230,000 a year to operate a center in the Whaling City and that CCAR is looking at a variety of funding options.

At the Willimantic center Friday afternoon, Williams pulled on a headset and made calls to others in recovery, checking in to see if they were doing OK.

Those who sign up for the Telephone Support Recovery Program receive a phone call once a week. If the person on the other end of the line needs help, Williams said he has been trained to lead them to the right resource.

Helping others has helped him with his own recovery, he said.

DeJesus, a graphic designer, said he has been making calls, too, and assisting others with their resumes and job applications while working to regain everything he lost — including his children — when he relapsed on heroin last year.

DeJesus, who moved here from Enfield, knows of Willimantic's reputation as a "Heroin Town," but said since he has cleaned up nobody has approached him about buying drugs.

He said that if he had to sit in a sober house all day, he might have started to think about using again.

Instead, he has been volunteering and going to the recovery center's daily "All Recovery Meeting," which is open to anybody looking for support with any kind of recovery, whether it be from drug and alcohol abuse or other addictions.

Later this month, DeJesus will attend CCAR's weeklong Recovery Coach Academy, where he will learn how to better help his peers.

"I feel safe here," DeJesus said. "I feel very comfortable around people who might have been in my situation."

Natalia Racicot, 29 years old and three years sober from a cocaine addiction, was using one of the center's computers to apply for a job at Wal-Mart on Friday morning. It would be her second part-time job.

Her true love is nursing, she said, but with a felony record resulting from her drug use, she knows it will be hard to get back into that field.

"This place helps you," she said. "They build you up a lot. Even when you get down, they build you back up."

She was having thoughts of drinking at one point, Racicot said, but she went to a meeting and "told on" herself because she wanted to stay clean from any substances.

"Afterward, people talked to me," she said. "They were very supportive because they know how it is to want to use drugs or alcohol again."

The center offers activities, such as yoga and journaling classes and arts and crafts and, in addition to the All Recovery Meetings, it hosts meetings specifically for young people, Spanish speakers and problem gamblers.

The Willimantic center has two paid staffers, Center Manager Nathan Cleaver and Volunteer Coordinator John Schwartz.

Cleaver, 26, who started as a volunteer while attending nearby Eastern Connecticut State University, is one of the few people in the building not in recovery himself.

He said he grew up in the recovery community, however, having a close family member who brought him to AA meetings as a kid.

Promoted recently to the manager's position, Cleaver, who considers himself an "ally" to those in recovery, said he has worked hard to make the center a positive place.

"What we do is bridge the gap between the recovery community and the community," he said. "People look negatively on addicts. Just the word fuels the stigma. CCAR wants to put a positive face on recovery through these centers in the heart of the community."

Schwartz, 54, who worked for decades in the restaurant industry and is in "long-term recovery" from drugs and alcohol, said CCAR offers a more holistic approach than the traditional 12-step recovery programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, noting that those programs have helped countless people, including himself.

"One of the things I like about CCAR is that we want to cast the widest net. If you say you're in recovery, you're in recovery. We can help you get to the place you need to be," Schwartz said.

At 12:30 p.m. Friday, about 25 people of all ages and ethnicities gathered in the center's main room for the daily All Recovery Meeting, many greeting each other by first name or with a pat on the arm or handshake.

The topic of the meeting was "responsibility," and the participants talked about their efforts to be good parents to their children or caretakers to their aging parents, to pay the bills on time and, above all, to stay clean and sober.

"Today the most important responsibility I have is not to pick up a drink or drug," said a man named Raheem, wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap.

After an hour, the facilitator said, "We've run out of time," and the group responded, in chorus, "But not out of hope" before filtering back out to the street.

k.florin@theday.com

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