Addiction recovery centers ask for more state dollars as they face difficulty hiring, keeping workers

BRATTLEBORO — Justin Johnston has been a peer counselor at the local addiction recovery center for more than four years. His job involves training volunteers, overseeing the building’s safety and maintenance, coordinating the center’s outreach at local homes and coaching people in recovery.

Johnston, 35, started out as a volunteer at the Turning Point Center of Windham County. He soon realized he could make a living out of helping people, just like the center did for him.

Turning Point, Johnston said, put him on a path to recovery from cocaine and opiate use after he had served time in federal prison. He said the center helped him create a better life, which he initially didn’t know how to do.

“When I came home, I had no direction, no skills and no recovery, but I was abstinent the whole time in prison,” he said. “Turning Point gave me purpose and made me feel valued, no matter what my past looked like.”

Because he sees his job as a mission, Johnston hasn’t looked for employment elsewhere — even though he doesn’t get paid much and has no benefits. And some workdays can be traumatic, such as when clients die from a drug overdose.  

To get health care, Johnston and his family — including his fiancee and their two children — rely on Vermont’s Medicaid programs. He loves his job but also desires financial security and better social-safety nets for his family.

“At times, this can be a struggle,” Johnston said at the center one January morning, after he had shoveled the building driveway and checked in a guest.

Dozens of other recovery coaches around the state are in the same situation: performing a stressful, lifesaving job that doesn’t compensate well because recovery centers have limited money. 

Now, recovery centers are asking the state to increase their yearly funding in order to sustain their work, starting with providing workers better pay and offering job benefits. 

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