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The Critical Connection to Healthy Recovery: Alumni Engagement

friends hanging out at Encore Encore Addiction Mental Health

Why is alumni engagement important? In a word, connection. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938 and is ongoing today, found a strong link between happiness and close relationships like those we have with family members, friends, and social circles. A 2018 survey by the Recovery Café, located in Seattle, found that 97 percent of its members felt the program helped them maintain their recovery, and 95 percent said it increased their sense of hope.

Connection gives us social outlets, improves our physical health and mental outlook, and helps regulate and improve our emotional state. For those in recovery, it also continues the healing process we began in treatment. The relationships with supportive others — whether they are family members, friends, members of recovery groups, or people in other social circles — bolster recovery through checking in, validating efforts, empathizing, understanding, guiding, and helping the person in recovery to reduce negative thinking.

An Encore alum, L., who has been in recovery for 21 months, says that having friends in recovery to lean on means a lot to her. “It strengthens my own passion to stay clean knowing that I have a strong recovery network, mostly comprised of my fellow Encore alumni and people I have met through the alumni network.”

Andrew, another Encore alum, sees alumni engagement as vital to his recovery. In the three and a half years since he left treatment at Encore, he has only missed three or four of the weekly support group meetings, and he’s a regular at the social events that Encore organizes as well. “We have gotten to know each other so we can check in and be honest, and challenge each other when needed. It’s a small group, which makes it very comfortable for me since larger groups can be overwhelming.”

A recent alum, Riley, says the meetings are critical for him, because it’s a small group that has built a deep level of trust. “We can bounce our ideas and experiences off each other. The accountability is a really big thing for me. It keeps me moving forward, working toward my goals. Right now, my main goals are to graduate from college and go to graduate school.”

Building Core Relationships

At Encore, we encourage our patients to build relationships with each other and other alumni of our programs throughout their treatment:

  • In the beginning, we discuss what their goals for recovery are and how they can achieve them, including the need to create supportive recovery networks.
  • As they continue their treatment and begin to better understand what it feels like to be healthy and to have that self-esteem critical to recovery, they also start to connect to those in treatment with them and others in healthy ways.
  • Near the end of treatment, we provide resources for connection and community, including the activities and groups we offer at Encore. In addition to encouraging patients to stay in touch with other patients in their group, we also connect them to community-based recovery support groups, such as AA, NA, Smart Recovery, and Refuge Recovery.

The Importance of Staying Engaged

Encore’s Alumni Program brings together those who are new to recovery as well as alumni who have established long-term recovery. The experience, reassurance, and guidance they can provide to new alumni helps them to see that a rewarding, enjoyable, healthy life in recovery is possible. Andrew returns to Encore’s outpatient treatment groups periodically to tell his story, which is, he says, a way of being of service to those who share the same struggles he has had. “It’s never comfortable to tell my story, but I always feel good after I am done telling it to people who need to hear it.”

Riley leans heavily on his support network, made up of some of the young men he was in treatment with and alumni he’s met, and offers the same support to them. “It’s fellowship, and a way of staying accountable to recovery. The relationships I have with them, one or two in particular, are the best and most meaningful relationships I have. Because of our experiences with addiction and treatment, there is no bs. We can be who we are with each other.”

For alumni who have been out of treatment for a longer time, the Alumni Program is one component in their own recovery. “I want to stay close to the place that really helped me explode into growth,” Andrew explains. “I’m 34 and I had been wrestling with addiction for about 10 years before I came to Encore. I experienced the support of genuinely compassionate people who really wanted to help me get clean.”

“Staying engaged through this network not only facilitates my own personal growth, but I’d like to think that I help my fellow alum grow as well,” L. tells me. “This group helps me in my recovery because it’s a constant reminder that I am not alone. In my years of abusing drugs and self-medicating, I often felt so alone that it only worsened my destructive behaviors.” Recovery for life means staying engaged in the recovery community and nourishing the friendships and mentoring relationships found there.

Encore Alumni Activities

An alumni support group meets weekly, currently by Zoom due to COVID precautions. When it is safe to do so, we will begin meeting in person again. We also sponsor social events, from bowling and hikes to gatherings in coffee shops. While we have not been able to gather as regularly during the pandemic, alumni have gathered outdoors when possible for picnics and hikes, among other activities.

As COVID restrictions are lifted, we are looking forward to offering our alumni another important way of staying connected through our volunteer program. The program will offer a range of service opportunities, including making and serving meals in a local soup kitchen, mentoring young people, and cleaning up at local parks.

Interdependence is what makes us stronger, healthier, and successful in recovery.

Solan, M. (2017, October 5). The secret to happiness? Here’s some advice from the longest-running study on happiness. Harvard Health Blog.

Uhl, D. (2018, November 6). Recovery Café Network. Social Innovations Journal.

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