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Recovery Corps - Origin Story

I originally wrote this in July of 2017. Today, however, the Marshfield Clinic Recovery Corps Program received the 2019 WI Americorps Program of the year. I thought it was a good time to put this out there as a means to provide insight into how people are and can develop innovative, system changing programs, leverage political and community capital and see something become far bigger than ever imagined.

Origin Story

My name is Jesse Heffernan and I am a person in long term substance use and mental health recovery since January 21, 2001. I've witnessed the rise of the current opiate epidemic from ins

ide the recovery community and been part of the reactionary scrambling to try to save lives, homes and communities. In, 2007 my family was reaching out to me asking how and where they could get my cousin into a treatment facility in the far north part of WI. She overdosed 3 times, lost custody of her children, went to prison and continues to struggle today. I have met with parents, and families all asking the same question; where do we go? Who do we turn to? The ways in which our current system is set up is one of a culture of NO. No, you do not have the right or any insurance, no, we don’t have beds available, no, there are no detox facilities here, no there is no immediate care we can provide you. The culmination of these messages and stigma result in one collective message being told to those reaching out and struggling, NO, you are not good enough.

It is my intention and goal in this lifetime to create a system and culture of YES. Yes, we can help you, yes, you are good enough, yes you deserve recovery, yes, we want you to live and thrive. I see part of this goal happening by fully embracing the potential of recovery supports and embracing all pathways of recovery. I want to have a real life person or screen time available to meet the individual or family where they are at within a half hour. Whether it be at work, home, in an ER, faith community or the bathroom of a hardware store, we have the chance to meet the need left by our current gaps.


In January of 2016 I met with former 8th District of WI Congressman Reid Ribble to discuss my thoughts and concerns with the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act. In the meeting I proposed a program called Recovery Corps that I believed would provide a unique model for a national program. The ultimate goal of Recovery Corps would be to respond to the opiate and substance use crisis in our country by mobilizing our greatest underutilized resource, the power and potential of the Recovery Community. While there are a number of Recovery programs and organizations in the country that do amazing work, my concern and perception of these movements, and the CARA Bill itself, was that it continued to enable a culture of competition and resistance. How were we going to be able to tell what impact our grant recipients and organizations were having--and how were we going to be able to work collaboratively to address the issues that perpetuated the devastation of addiction?

My program recommendation was to harness the volunteer-based service infrastructure already established by the AmeriCorps program since the early 90’s and combine it with the peer empowerment model of recovery coaching. Recovery Coaching peer service structures have been at the heart of communities across the country, filing in the gaps of traditional services and legitimizing the experience of a person in recovery, empowering them to be a catalyst to help others seeking recovery. There are several articles and stories pertaining to this movement and make clear the exponential wave it will create once we move out of the early adopters stage.

In the meeting with Con Ribble I shared my personal experience as both an Americorps Alumni (2006-2007) and a Recovery Coach and trainer (Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery). My time with the Youth Runaway and Outreach Program at the Fox Valley Boys and Girls club was my doorway into the human services field. It allowed me to bring the skills and passion I had found in early recovery back to my community by reaching out to youth with resources and mentor-ship, speaking and presenting at high schools about the dangers of running away and substance use, co-facilitating the youth LGBT support group and working with children during summer time of course. Later on, when I had discovered the Recovery Coach model, I knew that I had found the natural next step for me personally and professionally. As a non-degreed and non-traditional learner, the CCAR training academy, becoming a trainer of coaches, and follow up once again empowered my skills and passion to bring the model back to my community and start sharing the process with others. Three years later, we now have over a dozen trainers and over 500 coaches who are working with recovery centers and treatments, and emergency departments.

The conclusion of my first Recovery Corps meeting with Con Ribble was to set up a full day of meetings with his Chief of Staff Rick Sense and 5-6 key stakeholders who could help guide and provide input on the proposal. The folks we identified were the Honorable Judge Nancy Kreuger (Outagamie County Drug Court), Jennifer (Tammy Baldwin office), Jenny Malcore (Rep John Nygren) and then WI Dept of Health Section Chief Dr. AJ Ernst.

Our round of exploratory meetings yielded several great discussions, feedback and encouragement. Most encouraging, however, was the proposal from Dr. Ernst to connect with the Marshfield Community Outreach Clinic who had been housing Americorps programs for the past 16 years. He and I met in Madison shortly after on a call with leaders and representatives from the Marshfield HOPE Consortium. Again, we were able to refine the Recovery Corps model proposal and set up a meeting time with the Marshfield staff. The formation of the Recovery Corps team had been created. The Marshfield team had also been in discussion with the National Americorps leaders who were looking for a program like this to be able to address the opiate epidemic and encouraged the clinic to apply for an upcoming grant.

The seasoned and incredibly talented team at Marshfield included Brian Blahnik, Rachel Stankowski, Sheila Weix, Danielle Luther, and Ronda Kopelke. Through the course of 3 months we honed in on the program objectives, strategy and outcomes and put them into the grant proposal. Americorps had also reached out to the Hazelden Betty Ford clinic in Minnesota to provide a substance use and recovery learning day which included a presentation from Faces & Voices of Recovery (FAVOR) team members.

In October of 2016 I was appointed to the WI Governors Opiate Task Force. As a representative of the Recovery community to provide recommendations surrounding prevention, treatment, public safety, harm reduction and recovery in response to our state’s current opiate-related issues. Here I have had the privilege to present on and share the recovery coach and recovery corps models and how they are inextricably connected to the current crisis and fundamental in our solutions and hopeful long-term success. Not only did the Task Force’s recommendations include recovery coaches for hospitals and prison reentry, it dedicated $60,000 above the applied for grant money from Americorps to the Recovery Corps program.

Marshfield Community Outreach Clinic has been awarded the grant from Americorps to start hiring for and training community members in recovery and those impacted as Recovery Corps members in Sept 2017 and Governor Scott Walker signed 11 bills from the Task Force recommendations on July 17th, including the allocated dollars to the Recovery Corps program. This is a huge success and will prove to be a stepping stone to roll out this program nationally.


I never would have imagined the meeting with Congressman Ribble would have come as far as it has and become, what I hope is a pilot program with the potential and promise to change the culture to a nation in reaction and high alert. I recently started with the national organization Faces & Voices of Recovery, a leader and hub of recovery enterprise, advocacy and leadership. Faces & Voices of Recovery have mobilized hundreds of thousands of Americans with trainings, educational opportunities, and support. The next step in this goal of making Recovery Corps a National (Possibly International?) program, lies in the assets of Recovery Community Organizations and Centers. These organizations can act as host sites and recruit membership, facilitate a collaboration with Americorps infrastructure because of their history of public service engagement, mobilize an invaluable volunteer network, and measure success.

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