Addiction recovery coaches working in Framingham, Marlborough

Billy Parks and Rebecca Zwicker hit rock bottom. They battled drug addiction, and are now helping others as certified addiction recovery coaches.

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Henry Schwan
The MetroWest Daily News
September 10, 2018

Billy Parks speaks from experience. He used heroin for years, and it derailed his life. His marriage ended, and his relationship with his children was strained.

“It was hell,” Parks, a Fitchburg resident, said of his drug addiction.

Drug-free for nearly 13 years, he’s now a certified addiction recovery coach and calls on his past experience to help those facing substance abuse.

Parks is called in to work with patients in emergency rooms at Framingham Union and UMass Memorial-Marlborough hospitals to lend a sympathetic ear and offer support, like connecting patients with recovery options, including detoxification and residential treatment facilities.

Parks is one of a two-person recovery coach team, working under the supervision of Advocates, a Framingham-based non-profit that provides services for people with developmental, mental health and other challenges.

Rebecca Zwicker, the other member of the team, also struggled with heroin addiction. She spent time in prison, got herself on track, and makes visits to emergency rooms to tell patients she’s been in their shoes and they can get better.

The Zwicker and Parks team is one of several recovery coach programs operating in Massachusetts, according to Keith Scott, vice president of Peer Support and Self Advocacy at Advocates.

Recovery coach is a relatively new concept in Massachusetts in the battle against opioid addiction and substance abuse. The focus is helping patients who are admitted to emergency rooms. Scott said the biggest challenge is getting the word out that the coaches are available to help.

“It was slow going at first,” Scott said of the initial volume of calls. “But now they’re working flat out.” Many of the referrals come from human service organizations and police departments that participate in jail diversion programs, Scott said.

A $120,000 annual grant from the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership pays for the recovery coaches that serve Framingham and Marlborough. The pilot program is entering its third year and Scott hopes it expands statewide.

“There’s no shortage of need,” Scott said.

When recovery coaches enter an emergency room, they establish rapport with a patient. If the conversation develops, treatment options are given, but only if the patient wants them, Scott said.

Coaches must have experienced the same types of challenges as their patients. There’s also training and certification.

Each coach must complete 500 hours of supervised training, plus additional training in areas like advocacy, ethical responsibility and motivational interviewing.

Years ago, Zwicker was in an emergency room after a drug overdose, and wished there was someone there who understood how she felt.

“I’m going to keep (working as a recovery coach). I love my job and helping people,” Zwicker said.

As for Parks, his work means he can help others, like a patient who arrived at Framingham Union after a drug overdose.

“I gave him my phone number, and said, ‘call me when you get out,’” Parks said. “Four days later he called me.”

“For two months, we met every week in a park and talked for hours,” Parks continued. “He’s back in touch with his family. It’s good that he now has choices, like I do.”