Give People What They Need—and They Grow

by Mike Schut, Communications Manager

Ask Vince Collins what he most likes about the Recovery Café model and he just might start reflecting on his background working with children. His college degree focused on preschool children. And he has worked in child welfare and with special-needs adoptions. 

For children to do well, he says, you give them what they need—and they grow.  

True for kids. True for you. True for me. True for all of us at the 60 Recovery Cafés across the US and in Canada. 

And, Vince emphasized, especially for those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families, Recovery Cafés provide a taste of family, of a more functional setting that begins to provide us with what we need to grow.

The Recovery Navigator Program

Vince serves as the Executive Director of Recovery Café Clark County (located in Vancouver, WA). Drive a couple hours north and you’ll find another Café, Recovery Café Orting Valley, in the small town of Orting. 

Both Cafés have been awarded contracts to administer a state-funded program called the Recovery Navigator Program (RNP). As with any state program, it’s fairly easy to get a bit lost in the details. So perhaps painting a picture first would be helpful.

 The Recovery Café Clark County Recovery Navigator team receives a Community Partnership Award.

A police officer gets a call. She responds and finds a middle-aged woman, sitting on a curb, dejected, defiant, intoxicated. The officer finds her in possession of an illegal substance. Rather than charge her and take her to jail, the officer calls a peer navigator from the RNP. The navigator shows up at the scene. The officer hands her off to the navigator.

The navigator offers support, finds out what this woman might need, describes the kinds of resources available to her. They might offer her a ride home, or to a shelter, or to an appointment. Participation is voluntary; the woman might walk away. But it is the beginning of a relationship with a peer—someone who has lived through at least some of the same experiences—that just might divert this woman from jail and into the services and relationships she needs to start her recovery journey.

A Peer-led, Field-based, Relationship-focused Program 

Launched in 2021 by the state of Washington, the RNP is now established in every county across the state. Recovery Café Clark County (RCCC) administers the RNP in Clark County and in two neighboring rural counties. Recovery Café Orting Valley administers the RNP in the rural parts of eastern Pierce County.

Washington’s legislature established the RNP following a Washington Supreme Court ruling that determined that the “state’s drug-possession law [which made possession a felony] was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors or law enforcement to prove that a person knowingly had substances on them.”

Coffee at Recovery Café Clark County

In response, the state legislature downgraded drug possession to a misdemeanor and required law enforcement to refer people to treatment. (A 2023 revision to the law makes possession a gross misdemeanor and recommends (rather than requires) that law enforcement refer people to treatment.)

The state funded the Recovery Navigator Program to meet the increased treatment referrals coming from law enforcement officers.

Peer-led recovery: Jim Jensen, a senior project manager overseeing the RNP throughout Washington, emphasizes that it “provides peer-led recovery support.” Navigators are peers with lived experience. The majority of the navigators at Recovery Café Clark County, for example, are people with prior justice system involvement.

Jim has also been struck at how often he hears these peers, and the Recovery Navigator Program, described as a “force multiplier” by law enforcement leaders. Navigators essentially multiply the effectiveness of law enforcement by freeing them up to focus on other parts of their job.

Relationship based: Just like Recovery Cafés, the RNP is relationship based. Barb Gerrior, who serves as Program Coordinator for RCCC’s Recovery Navigator Program, describes navigators as those who accompany others on their journey into long-term recovery. She says navigators provide the space for those they support to make their own decisions and then walk with them as they live through the consequences of those decisions. 

Alex Medina (left), RNP Lead Case Manager, and Alyssa Christel, RNP Case Manager, representing Recovery Café Orting Valley at a resource fair.

Field based: Navigators are field based, out and about, just as in the vignette above. They literally meet people where they are. And they offer ongoing individualized support to help break cycles of substance use and criminality.

(Finally, while referrals from law enforcement are prioritized, the RNP accepts referrals from many other sources: hospitals, shelters, community-based social service providers, even family members.)

Cafés and the RNP Complement Each Other 

Vince and Barb, as well as Anthony Kagochi, Director of the Café in Orting Valley, have experienced firsthand that the Recovery Café model works. They see the model in action, providing a healthy support network for the Café’s Members. 

All three therefore emphasized the importance of keeping the RNP separate from the Café. At the Café in Clark County, navigators work out of separate offices across town; at the Orting Valley Café, navigators work out of a space adjacent to the Café. And while navigators know not to bring someone to the Café without 24 hours in recovery, Cafés provide an essential component to a RNP participant’s recovery journey: once an individual has decided that they are ready to explore changing the trajectory of their lives, Recovery Cafés provide the community connections critical to long-term recovery.

Darius Roberts (left), pictured with his book and a fellow author, was an early participant in the RNP at Recovery Café Clark County. Darius writes: “The RNP and community made it possible to even get my book out.”

Adriel’s Story

Adriel Flores grew up in Alaska. He worked the oilfields there and in Colorado. As his addiction to alcohol spun out of control, so did his life. Arrested for a DUI, he woke up in jail and ended up in a fight with the police. He spent a year in prison. His partner left, and took the kids.

After prison he moved to Bellingham, then Seattle. Two years ago he relapsed, he says, and sat in jail for three months, followed by three months in rehab. While there he met a guy “really into his own recovery.” 

That guy was a Member of Recovery Café Clark County.

Adriel started going to the Café. Through the Café he met Jackie and Abe, both of whom worked as peer navigators in the Recovery Navigator Program. They helped Adriel find shelter.

Since then, Adriel has found work and become a recovery coach. He works as a metal fabricator and house painter. He serves as a translator at Hope Village, helping case managers and Spanish-speaking residents bridge their language differences. 

Adriel—like Vince, Barb, and Anthony—has experienced the power of the Recovery Café model. He says, “There’s a lot of love there, and tolerance.” And he appreciates the consistency, that the atmosphere in the Café doesn’t change.

Adriel now volunteers at the Café and attends his weekly Recovery Circle. With the support of peer navigators in the Recovery Navigator Program, and the healing community he found at Recovery Café Clark County, Adriel has himself become part of the community that gives people what they need and then watches them grow.

A Closing Note: What’s Happening in Your State? 

More and more states are recognizing that peer-led recovery support works; that peers need to be integrated into the medical, legal, and treatment fields; and that diversion programs like the RNP are often more humane, more caring, and more cost-effective than jail or prison. In response, peer workforce development programs are being established across the country. 

To find out if your state has a program similar to the Recovery Navigator Program, contact your legislator. Those working in your state’s healthcare authority may also know more.