The road to recovery from substance abuse is personal to Community Health Associate for MSU's Student Health Center Dawn Kepler.
When she was a student at Michigan State, Kepler said she tried to begin her own recovery but did not know where to start.
Her road to recovery started after college and brought her back to MSU, working in the Health Promotion Department where she got the opportunity to give students the administrative backing she never had.
Five years ago, three students approached the Health Promotion Department asking the university to develop a program to help students who are struggling with substance abuse to recover and have a support group to help them get through college sober, Kepler said.
SOAR was successful in its first year and led to the university developing CRC its own institutionalized program with Kepler as the group's coordinator.
“I myself am an individual in long-term recovery,” Kepler said. “I was a student at MSU who was new to recovery at the time, and I was searching for my own recovery support and I really struggled to find them. I know I never quite did as a student because when I was at MSU, they didn't exist in the same way that they do now. This is something that is definitely a passion for me. I love seeing our students being able to connect with other students around the recovery lifestyle.”
The CRC started in 2017 to help students in the MSU community seeking recovery from alcohol or substance abuse issues and provide a space on campus where students can participate in a student community that is free of substances. It is one of around 150 collegiate student recovery programs in the country, Kepler said.
“It is something that can create a lot of shame in people because of that (stigma)," Kepler said. "It's also something that people don't automatically identify as being an issue, particularly on a college campus where substance use is so much more visual than in maybe the broader community.”
The CRC is designed to help students in recovery fight against the stigmatization of a substance abuse disorder by using peer support and a trained staff to give them a fun and sustainable lifestyle without the presence of their vices.
“It really is a student-driven, student-focused program on what the students' needs are and following best practices in the field as well to try to be as effective as possible in supporting students in recovery,” Kepler said.
The CRC uses student feedback to develop different programs to best serve students seeking to begin their recovery process. The goal is to ensure that every student involved in the program has the support they need.
The CRC's services include student recovery housing on North campus, weekly student support meetings, a full-time staff to talk with students, a lounge that is available during the week and weekly sober social events.
Students can be as involved as they want. Kepler said some students are all in while others just attend the peer support meetings or social events. The most well-attended event is the weekly peer meetings.
Student recovery housing started in 2018 after the success of the program in the first year.. It has six double rooms — three for men and three for women — for students who are actively in recovery and are still seeking an authentic college experience.
“It tends to be students who are newer to recovery and really want those extra supports available and the extra accountability that comes with having the live-in recovery housing support specialist,” Kepler said.
The support specialist this year is a graduate student in MSU’s School of Social Work. They live in the house along with the students to ensure the students have the assistance they need, whether that means holding students accountable or just being there for them so they are not isolated.
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Housing for the support specialist is paid for through scholarships from the Jamie Daniels Foundation and The Children’s Foundation. The CRC received a $50,000 grant from the two organizations to cover the living expenses of the support specialist and provide students in CRC with financial aid. This is the third-straight year the foundations have given the grant to the CRC.
Kepler said the foundations want to support the CRC and expand its efforts through Michigan.
“They have been amazing in helping to support that live-in student position, that recovery housing support specialist and allowing us to pay for room and board for that student who is that frontline there every day, checking in, supporting our students living in recovery housing,” Kepler said.
The grant money is also used to pay for school and living expenses to ease some of the financial burdens of being a student who has to pay for rehab services, like counseling.
The CRC plans to return to in-person operations throughout the school year while following the university’s health and safety protocols after a year of operating online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CRC will maintain some hybrid options for students after the success of their online endeavor.
“They were really feeling disconnected through the pandemic,” Kepler said. “Because of the guidelines around physical distancing and just the nature of the pandemic, it's been an isolating experience. Isolation is the biggest risk factor that our students in recovery report.”
The group started having in-person and hybrid meetings this summer after Ingham County lifted the restrictions on outdoor gatherings. The meetings were just the beginning of the return of CRC.
“I'm really looking forward to more opportunities to have those in-person opportunities because it's just for our students,” Kepler said. “It's something that they've identified that they want. Some of our students have really taken to the online virtual connection pieces, and some of our students haven't. We're trying to adapt and provide both as much as possible.”
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