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Celebrating recovery and finding a path toward jobs – Richard Asinof

by Richard Asinof, ConvergenceRI, contributing writer

Photo: Abbie Knapton, and her son, Christopher, at the 2021 Rally4Recovery

This year, the Rally4Recovery will host its first “Recovery Friendly Job Fair,” with more than 30 employers participating

The 19th annual Rally4Recovery, which will take place this coming weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 17, from noon until 4 p.m. at Roger Williams Park’s Temple of Music, is expected to draw hundreds – if not thousands – of participants to celebrate recovery.

This year, the festivities will include the first annual “Recovery Friendly Job Fair,” with more than 30 employers participating, including Amazon for its new facility under construction in Johnston.

Many employers at the job fair will be conducting on-the-spot job interviews – and hiring, according to Jonathan Goyer, the director of R.I. Recovery Friendly Workplaces, which is serving as the main stage sponsor for this year’s Rally4 Recovery.

Many of the employers will also be hosting apprenticeship and training opportunities tables. And, at least three higher educational institutions will be hosting on-site table to enroll people in college, according to Goyer.

This year marks another big change – Abbie Knapton is serving as the new president of the Rally4Recovery, representing a passing of the torch to a younger generation woman. It has been nine years since Knapton first shared publicly her own story of recovery from heroin addiction, which ended up being a front-page feature on the Sunday edition of The Providence Journal.

“We want it to be a celebration of recovery, where people can come together and get excited, because I have to tell you that, my first rally in 2013 changed my life,” Knapton ssid, in a recent interview with ConvergenceRI. “It was held downtown at the Roger Williams Memorial, South Main Street and North Main Street, and it was the first time that I had seen like thousands of people come together to celebrate this, and not hide or be ashamed of their recovery.”

Knapton continued: “They were out there, speaking about it, embracing it. And, I had just completed my first bit of advocacy, which was an article that reporter Lynn Arditi did in The Providence Journal about my recovery. It was about a young person who had been prescribed narcotics who then got addicted, changing her life, and now being in this new [recovery] community, and being proud of who she was.”

The story appeared in the newspaper the day after the Rally4Recovery. As Knapton recalled that experience, “I did not realize that the next day, it was going to be a spread in the Sunday Journal, like the front page, a picture of me as a super young cheerleader on the front page of the ProJo, talking about my [heroin] addiction and my recovery.”

A decade later, Knapton shared her thoughts with ConvergenceRI about how her story of recovery had changed her life. “Nothing but good came from that for me. And it helped to cement my role land my place in this community as a person who would continue to share their story – and continue to celebrate others in recovery, publicly and loudly and proudly. Because we don’t need to hide behind closed doors; we don’t need to be stuck in the narrative that we need to be ashamed of where we came from.”

Knapton emphasized the importance of celebrating recovery in a public fashion. “We need to be proud, because it is something that we’ve overcome and a thing that we can share with the world that has value – and will inspire others to do the same.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Abbie Knapton, the new president of the Rally4Recovery, and her hopes and desires for the Sept. 17 event.

ConvergenceRI: How does it feel to be the new president of Rally4Recovery?
KNAPTON: There were so many people who had been doing this for so many years, they were ready to hang up their hats and pass the torch. It felt like a natural thing for me. I’ve been involved with the Rally4Recovery since I became involved with recovery in 2013. And, I was super-excited to take on the responsibility.

ConvergenceRI: Do you see it as the next generation taking over? What are the challenges, as you see them? And, the changes you’d like to see?
KNAPTON: We are so excited to be – as you said, the new generation coming in and taking the lead. I’ve been really prepared for this by my predecessors, who were in the positions that I’m now in.

I think that we want to breathe new life into it. And, we want it to be a celebration of recovery, where people can come together and get excited, because I have to tell you that, my first rally in 2013, it changed my life.

ConvergenceRI: How has the definition of recovery community changed?
KNAPTON: You’ve been reporting on this world. You know. You’ve seen the evolution, too. Before, it was a very small subset of people who were loud and proud about their recovery. And now, there are thousands of us. And, it is such an important thing that we do to come together, in a unified celebration of all walks of recovery, all different pathways, to come together and show that we are a constituency of consequence.

We are lawmakers. We are people who have families. We are prominent figures in our community. We are also parents and siblings and tax-paying citizens who have value.

And that is something that a lot of people have misconceptions about. That, maybe we are all, like, you know, the pre-conceived notions that they have about addictions, and what recovery can look like for people. It’s unbelievable that there are still people who feel that way today, the stigma is still real, so it’s just so important that we come together and shout to the rooftops, that recovery is possible.

[Editor’s Note: The persistence of stigma is very real: The Republican candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, Dr. Oz, recently compared “unhoused” people in Philadelphia to “zombies” walking around “with needles sticking out of their necks.”]

ConvergenceRI: One of the innovative changes at this year’s Rally4Recovbery will be the onsite job fair, with more than 30 employers, with some conducting on-the-spot job interviews and actually hiring at the rally. How did that come about?
KNAPTON: The job fair is going to be an amazing new thing that we are doing this year, in conjunction with the Rhode Island Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative, which I also work for, part-time, so Jonathan is also my boss, in addition to being my friend and champion, I guess, and press agent [laughter].

We decided that we would offer free tables to any Rhode Island Recovery-Friendly Workplace participant, to come and advertise and to have folks apply [for jobs].

We will also have job-training opportunities and higher education programs that will be present as well, ready to sign people up to go to school. “Skills for Rhode Island’s Future” is one if them. There may be people who are at the rally who are not necessarily labor-ready, who are still in treatment or who are still in very early recovery, and not quite ready to get a job. So, there will be opportunities for them as well.

One of the employers that I am really excited about is we are going to have Amazon there, who will be making appointments for people to start work.

ConvergenceRI: At their new Johnston facility, or elsewhere?
KNAPTON: Yes, Johnston.

ConvergenceRI: Was that a hard sell to get them onboard?
KNAPTON: No, they reached out to us. They had done a sponsorship [of Rally4 Recovery] previously. And, I reached out to them as part of this long list of sponsors that we were doing outreach to.

And they said, absolutely. We’d love to be there. And, we’d love to have a presence. And I said, “What about the job fair?” And they said, “Definitely, we’d love to be there.” So, that’s going to be cool.

ConvergenceRI: Wow. One of the biggest hurdles, if that’s right the term for it, is recovery housing…
KNAPTON: Definitely.

ConvergenceRI: … and finding safe, affordable places to live, particularly for women with young children. I was wondering if you could talk about that. What are some potential solutions to overcoming that barrier?
KNAPTON: I am not necessarily entrenched in that world anymore. I did work at the Bryson House; I was a house manager there for several years. But I have been kind of separated from that community. My primary job is more in the mental health space.

ConvergenceRI: Can you tell me about your current job?
KNAPTON: Sure, I work for Peace Love Foundation. We are an expressive arts organization that is primarily a training program for front-line professionals who work in mental health and human services.

So, I train people who work with a population of folks who need mental health support. We train them in our art curriculum that is geared toward supporting people and talking about their feelings through art as a modality, for all walks of life.

We have people who work in prisons, people who work in hospitals, pediatric psych units, all across the country and in Canada. We’ve had people do workshops in Jamaica and in Puerto Rico as well.

ConvergenceRI: What is the best strategy to overcoming stigma?
KNAPTON: I think just being open. I think that is the message that I learned over the last several years of sharing my story openly. It’s given me such great purpose in life. And, it has really smashed a lot of that stigma that is associated with what heroin addiction looks like, for people in my life and for people beyond that, because, I have shared it with thousands of people.

You know the way I grew up. Barrington, Rhode Island. I was actually just poking around, and I read that article that Lynn Arditi had done, and she described me as looking like the Ivory Soap girl. Except my teeth had been destroyed from using drugs.

Like, literally, until I smiled, looked like just a regular 22-year-old, and then I smiled, and all my teeth had fallen out of my head.

It was this dissonance. And, where I came from, where I was, and where I ended up going. As a result of that article, a dentist reached out to me and fixed my teeth for free.

[Editor’s Note: For transparency purposes, Knapton was a high school classmate of my son at Barrington High School.]

ConvergenceRI: Wow.
KNAPTON: It changed my life. So, just being open has provided me so many opportunities for growth, and for my own personal life to improve. But, also, to support other people along their journey. I have an open book tattoo. Being an open book has given me the life that I have and it’s amazing.

ConvergenceRI: Do you still maintain contact with folks from Barrington?
KNAPTON: Yeah. Good friends. I have a core bunch of friends that I still speak with. A lot of them had to separate themselves from me when I was in active addiction, just for their own safety, and because I wasn’t a good friend. I wasn’t able to be a good, supportive friend during that time. But, we have reconnected since. And, I value their friendship,

ConvergenceRI: This will be the first time that you are doing the job fair. Do you have any metrics? Have you set up any goals? Or, are you just seeing how it will work out? Do you have any anticipated outcomes?
KNAPTON: I don’t know what to anticipate, because the last two years were so strange, because of COVID. So, we had much lower attendance than we had previously. But, I’d say, a couple thousand people, I hope.

ConvergenceRI: What do you think in terms of messaging? Now, with the new money coming from the Attorney General’s office, there may be a big communications effort. If you had to weigh in on what messages work, besides being an open book and being open, what are they? What are the key messages that you would like to see resonate in Rhode Island?
KNAPTON: I think that for harm reduction to be more accepted and more mainstream, I think that is such an important pathway. And, as long as we are protecting people, they then have the opportunity to make the decision for themselves, whether they want to seek recovery. If they don’t want to, that is absolutely OK. That’s valid, too. It is our responsibility as our fellow citizens and other Rhode Islanders to protect people from harm, in any way that we can.

So, I am a huge supporter of the harm reduction centers. I think that that is going to be just absolutely life-changing for a lot of people. It is going to save lives. And, I don’t see why anyone would object to saving lives. That seems like such a simple concept to me.

Project Weber/Renew is dong incredible work around [harm reduction centers], along with Victa. We are going to get a space. We are going to get it done. And, I’m really excited about that.

Something that bothers me about messaging a lot in recovery, that has always kind of stuck in my head, is that people have a conception that it is an everyday struggle, right, to be in recovery. I have been in recovery for almost 10 years now. And, if it was an everyday struggle, I probably wouldn’t still be in recovery, right? There is joy and hope and purpose in recovery. There doesn’t need to be this idea that every day is hard. I have hard days. So do you.

Do you see what I mean? Everybody had hard days. Sure, I have a different set of issues that I have to address on those hard days, but it’s no different than someone else addressing a mental health issue. Do you know what I mean?

ConvergenceRI: Sure.
KNAPTON: I don’t like that. Some people say it’s a struggle everyday, but it’s not. My life is beautiful. My life is amazing, I have a beautiful son and a wonderful husband and I own a home. And, I got all of that because I stayed in recovery and I committed to this way of life.

I don’t want people to think of it as a struggle. But it is hard in the beginning. It is certainly hard. And, I have hard times that I go through. But, because I have done the work in recovery, I am able to face those problems, in a different and more productive way.

ConvergenceRI: How would you translate that into a message?
KNAPTON: Ah, I don’t know… But the fear tactics don’t work. They never have. When has that worked? It has never worked.

ConvergenceRI: What other changes would you like to see with the recovery movement?
KNAPTON: I would love to see more women in leadership. And, I am now proud to now hold a position in leadership in the community as a woman. I think that it’s been too long of men holding the torch. I will say that.

ConvergrenceRI: Do you want to expand on that?
KNAPTON: Not really. I think that women in recovery face such different issues than men do. And, seeing women succeed in this space is so empowering to other women who are coming up. It is my responsibility and my duty to support other women in recovery as a person in recovery.

I hope that seeing other women succeed. I mean, there are lots of executive directors who are women in this space. And, they are powerhouse women. I look at Colleen Ndoye and she is a phenomenal executive director over at Project Weber Renew. I look at other women who have come before me, Deb Dettor, Michelle Harter – they are powerhouse women who have done incredible work, paving the wave for me. So it is my responsibility to continue to lift other women up on my way.

ConvergenceRI: If you had the opportunity with the candidates running for Governor, what would you want to tell them?
KNAPTON: Hmmm. Hmmm. That the support of the recovery community comes from the community. It does not need to come from state departments telling us what we need. We know what we need. And they should listen.

ConvergenceRI: Last year, I found out about the cuts that BHDDH was going to make. And then I published the story. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “BHDDH cuts more than $2 million infunding for recovery programs.”]

As a result, there was an intervention and a revolt at the Task Force meeting, where everyone walked out. And the cuts got rescinded. It was probably one of the few times that the community won over an entrenched bureaucracy.
KNAPTON: It was important. And, it was needed. And, honestly, the rally was right after that happened.

It was such a feeling on unity and camaraderie, and victory in the air. Obviously, we need more funding than they give us. Like, it was not enough. Leveling it was kind of insulting, considering the need is so incredibly great. It was like an air of “we did this together.”

There are competing factions in the recovery community, just like any other community. We are all competing for the same pot of money all the time. We are all trying to help the same people. We have overlapping interests. It’s tough.

The rally is a day for us to set all that aside and come together. And pursue the one thing that we all share, which is celebrating recovery. And, it is so important. And, that is something that has always been my goal, is to get us all together, you know, can we love each other and celebrate this amazing thing?

I am definitely invested in making sure that that continues, that that spirit is upheld, and that the rally can be a place where people can just be together and celebrate.



Richard Asinof is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online subscription newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island.

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