By Tara Bannow • The Bulletin

Eight months after overdosing on a cocktail of angel dust and mescaline that almost killed him, 15-year-old Isaac Brewster is giving drug recovery a second try.

Around lunchtime Monday, that meant playing chess at Bom Dia Coffee on Bend’s west side. Other days, it’s exploring caves, hiking or speeding down hills on a snow skateboard.

All the while, he’s accompanied by his recovery mentor, Travis Weaver.

“He’s like a father figure to me, honestly,” said Brewster, sweeping his hand through his hair.

Weaver was just about Brewster’s age when addiction took hold. It started with shoplifting. He dabbled in pretty much everything and found heroin, his drug of choice, at 19. He’s 36 now; more than five years clean. Recovery was rocky. It entailed 10 rounds of outpatient treatment and two stays in residential treatment.

“I kept thinking things like, ‘I’m too young. Maybe I can drink or maybe I can do this,’” Weaver recalled. “But really, I had to admit to myself, ‘I’m really an addict and an alcoholic and just can’t do any substances.’”

Brewster’s battling the same dilemma. If he could just smoke a little weed, he wouldn’t need any other drugs, he said. Then sighed.

“But I guess, like, it’s going to mess my brain up,” he said. “So, might as well stop.”

Recovery mentors are people who’ve battled addiction themselves and act as role models for those in recovery. They understand what their clients are going through and offer personal insight. Unlike counselors or case managers, who typically see clients in offices, recovery mentors are out in their worlds: taking them shopping, introducing them around at recovery meetings, helping them find apartments.

“If my recovery mentors are spending lots of time in the office, I chase them away and tell them, ‘Get out there and get to work,’” said Rick Treleaven, the CEO of BestCare Treatment Services, an addiction treatment provider with centers in Bend, Redmond, Madras and Klamath Falls.

Unlike sponsors, who are typically volunteers, recovery mentors, also called peer support specialists, are paid employees at treatment facilities.

The Portland-based nonprofit Central City Concern launched one of the country’s first recovery mentor programs in 1999. Word of the benefits spread quickly; mentors are now commonplace at drug and alcohol treatment facilities.

Weaver works for Rimrock Trails Adolescent Treatment Services, which provides drug and alcohol treatment to kids and young adults in Central Oregon. The nonprofit hired three recovery mentors through funding it received in 2014 from PacificSource Community Solutions, the insurance company that administers Medicaid regionally.

Erica Fuller-Hewitt, Rimrock Trails’ executive director, said since being paired with mentors while in residential treatment, many more of her severely addicted clients went to follow-up outpatient treatment for at least 90 days than in the past.

“We’ve been able to show that, in fact, it has been successful,” she said.

Building confidence

When Sarah Jo Vincent decided to quit drugs and alcohol, she was 21 and had been using for seven years. The change was anything but simple. She had to move, since everyone she knew still used drugs.

“Everyone that I had known and been with for the past six, seven, eight years — including family members — I could no longer associate with if I wanted to stay clean,” said Jo Vincent, who is now 48.

For a while, Jo Vincent pretty much kept to herself. Then she slowly made new friends and picked up hobbies, like going to the gym.

For many addicts, the social barriers to getting clean can be insurmountable. If their friends are still using, it’s all but impossible to spend time with them and stay clean. Former hangout spots can be triggers.

Now, Jo Vincent works as a recovery mentor for girls at Rimrock Trails. Step one with her clients is finding something they’re passionate about. She wants to find a positive skill they can use rather than drugs when they need to cope. For some kids, that means helping them land a job, even though that can be tough at 14.

Unfortunately, Jo Vincent finds many of her kids haven’t thought about hobbies. They’ve spent too much time in survival mode and taking care of others to think about themselves.

“To me, it’s all about empowering these kids to realize that they have abilities and they have talents and they have skills and goals,” she said, “and they’re not just a drug addict or whatever horrible messages they’ve been told their whole lives or that they’re telling themselves.”

Weaver likes to take his clients, all males, on outings like skateboarding, fishing or disc golfing. Lots of them aren’t used to doing those things sober. He wants to show them they can.

“‘You can still do activities like skateboarding and being into music and going to concerts,’” he said. “Showing them, like, ‘Hey, I can do these activities and stay clean and I want to support you in trying to do these things clean and sober, too.’”

Rimrock Trails’ recovery mentors frequently take their clients hiking, fishing, skateboarding, out for coffee — whatever the clients feel like doing. Mentors who work with adults, by contrast, described helping their clients with more basic necessities like finding housing, getting jobs and attending recovery meetings.

Haley Fitzgerald, a recovery mentor with BestCare, sees clients within their first six months of recovery. At that point, it’s mostly taking them to recovery meetings, getting neglected medical and dental issues taken care of, finding housing and applying for jobs.

The most important thing she does for clients is helps them gain back their confidence.

“People come in and they’re just like, ‘You just don’t understand. I can’t do this,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘Actually, I totally know you can. I see it! I believe it!’”

Other things come up along the way, like how to dress at a recovery meeting. One time, a client called Fitzgerald five minutes after she had dropped her off at Wal-Mart with her kids. Sobbing, she said she didn’t know how to shop with her kids sober.

“Alcoholics, they’ll usually go a little buzzed or messed up shopping,” Fitzgerald said. “So to have both of your kids and stuff, it was kind of overwhelming. I didn’t come down and do the shopping for her, but I came down and talked her down off the ledge and also helped her to feel that she could do this.”

Personal and professional

In 1998, the heroin overdose rate was skyrocketing in Portland. Leaders with Central City Concern, a nonprofit focused on homelessness, poverty and addiction, met to discuss solutions.

One man, an addict in recovery, described the difficulty of convincing oneself to go to a treatment facility. He envisioned a future in which recovered addicts would meet people in detox and, when it’s time to leave, take them by the hand and bring them to treatment.

Ed Blackburn, the organization’s executive director, loved the idea. He wrote up a funding proposal, which was approved by the county. At the time, he couldn’t find any such programs happening nationwide.

Recovery mentors have boosted the proportion of heroin-addicted clients who sought treatment after leaving Central City Concern’s detox facility by 296 percent, Blackburn said.

When Treleaven, BestCare’s CEO, first started working in the recovery field in 1981, most of his colleagues were in recovery themselves. Addiction treatment has since become much more professionalized: The counselors have graduate degrees and aren’t in recovery.

That’s not a bad thing, Treleaven said. After all, it’s important to have counselors who can work with doctors and understand medical conditions that are common among addicts.

“I need counselors that are well enough trained to understand that whole picture,” he said, “but what you don’t want to lose is the identification that used to happen with the counselor.”

To remedy that, BestCare has used recovery mentors since 2008. Like Rimrock, the program is also funded by PacificSource.

Recovery mentors are professionals who work under a set of ethical standards and boundaries. Each go through training that outlines rules around what their relationships with clients can and cannot include.

At Central City Concern, for example, mentors can’t develop relationships with clients that are codependent or romantic. They don’t lend them money, and they definitely don’t let them stay at their house.

“It’s pretty basic stuff,” Blackburn said. “You have to have people who have very good judgment around those things. It’s not just anybody in recovery.”

That’s not always easy. Fitzgerald, the BestCare recovery mentor, has had clients who were kicked out of their homes. She’s never let them stay with her, but she’s been tempted. These are people she takes shopping. She drives them to meetings. She listens to them cry when they call her in the middle of the night. She helps them pick out clothes.

“There is no way not to develop that closeness with them,” she said. “You’re doing that kind of stuff. You’re not sitting in an office plugging in stuff on the computer, telling them about what their new treatment plan is going to be.”

For Brewster, the 15-year-old Rimrock client, that closeness is what makes the difference. Weaver, his recovery mentor, is the only person Brewster has met in treatment whom he’s found helpful.

“It’s nice to have a counselor, but I don’t really talk to him about anything,” Brewster said. “I don’t really know him very well. But I know Travis really well, so it’s cool to be able to hang out with him.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,