Stakeholder’s Corner: Supporting Vermont Youth and Families Impacted by the Opioid Crisis
By Chris Hultquist, Executive Director
The Mentor Connector
Vermont has been overwhelmed by the opioid crisis: In the past 5 years alone, opioid overdose deaths in our state have increased by about 250 percent. Emergency department discharges for heroin overdose have increased by 2,500 percent.
The crisis has seriously impacted our young people. In Rutland County, where The Mentor Connector is located, more than 50 percent of those who receive treatment for substance abuse are between the ages of 20 and 24. Many of these young people grew up in homes surrounded by violence, stress, and substance abuse, factors that heighten the risk of developing a substance abuse problem later in life.
Established in 2004, The Mentor Connector guides more than 150 vulnerable children, youth, and young adults in western Vermont through life-changing friendships to build goals, character, and skills to be successful in life. We have mentored more than 1,000 young people, collaborated with hundreds of local businesses and organizations to support mentoring, and assisted 25 community organizations and schools in establishing mentoring programs.
Recognizing that substance abuse is often a problem spanning generations, we launched our Opioid Family Mentoring Program in January 2018, which couples a family mentor with one-on-one youth mentors to support family preservation. Families participating in the program have one parent in treatment through a local recovery program. Our goal is to help families build the skills and resources to promote a healthier family lifestyle and prevent youth from perpetuating the cycle of drug abuse. This unique model of support has led to a mentor-match length of 4.1 years, which is 5 times the national average. The medical field is proficient at reducing substance abuse, but there is a challenge regarding the “other pieces”—providing supports for changing one’s social world, restructuring one’s life, and finding new friends and a new community. The Mentor Connector’s Opioid Family Mentoring Program bridges that gap.
I never realized that even as an adult I definitely need a mentor. The Family Mentoring Program truly helped me with my parenting, goal setting, and even helped me find a new job, which I desperately needed. But the one thing I will take away from this experience is having someone to talk to who wasn’t a professional, but a trusted friend. I used to be that person who wouldn’t go to anyone for help. Now, I have no problem asking.
—Matt, age 32, parent
Our family mentor meets weekly with the family to develop family goals; reduce barriers for access to urgent care, mental health, and preventive dental care; and build and maintain healthy community connections. Every youth in the family is also provided a one-on-one mentor, who meets weekly with the youth to develop a trusting relationship and use teachable moments and activities to support the youth’s social, emotional, educational, and vocational growth. This team effort is indispensable to carrying out this challenging work.
Our mentors go through our high-quality mentor training with additional specialized training in substance abuse, motivational interviewing, Adverse Childhood Experiences, trauma, and mental health. We look at the developmental assets of each youth, their current social supports, their life experiences, and resiliency. We use all of that in the mentor-mentee matching process to help the mentor understand what kinds of supports would be useful.
We design our goals for young people around life skills, educational curiosity, and workforce development. We work with community businesses and local colleges to open up opportunities through job shadowing, internships, and educational advancement. We involve our kids in the Department of Labor’s classes in résumé writing and a local bank’s course in financial literacy. It’s important that young people in recovery develop relationships with other safe adults because at some point, the mentor relationship will end. As that happens, and they are able to advocate for themselves, they begin to see themselves as a self-sufficient and productive member of the larger community.
Simply having fun is an important ingredient of our success. Research has shown that for those in opiate recovery there is, among other things, a lack of awareness about how to have fun. Previously, getting high was the source of pleasure in their lives. It’s about changing old patterns of behavior. Our youth mentors plan enjoyable activities with their mentees. Together, they may play basketball, go canoeing, create videos on the computer, or go to the movies. Depending on the young person’s interests, the mentor may arrange a trip to the local animal shelter or museum. Every other week, we hold group recreational events for our youth, where they all get together and enjoy bowling, mini-golf, laser tag, and other activities. And quarterly, all of our youth and families come together for dinners, barbeques, and holiday events.
Resiliency, self-sufficiency, a new community of friends and associates, and hope for the future. These are the changes we are seeing every day in our youth and families. We are deeply grateful to OJJDP for its partnership and support of this life-transforming work.
To learn more about The Mentor Connector’s Opioid Family Mentoring Program, watch the OJJDP National Mentoring Resource Center webinar “Mentoring Youth Impacted by Opioids.”
Points of view or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.