RI first to open job training program to recovering addicts

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Whether a struggle with drug addiction creates a situation where you become unemployed long-term, or a bout of long-term unemployment causes depression leading to a substance abuse problem, experts attempting to combat the vicious cycle of substance abuse and being out of work are convinced the two situations are inherently intertwined.

On Thursday at the Courtyard Marriott in Warwick, advocates for a first-of-its-kind program in the country – an offshoot of a successful job re-entry program based in Connecticut for people who have been unemployed for at least half a year – gathered with more than a dozen people partaking in the program, all of which were in various stages of recovery from substance abuse and accompanying mental health problems.

“I want every single one of you to get a good job so that you can sustain your recovery. This is more than just job giving, it's life giving,” said Governor Gina Raimondo, who announced Rhode Island would initiate an addiction-centered version of the Platform to Employment program last August. “You'll walk out of this program with a resume, interview skills, leads.”

Joseph Carbone is president and CEO of the Bridgeport, Conn. job training program The WorkPlace, which started the Platform to Employment program in 2011. The program’s focus on helping people who had been unemployed for long periods of time gain employment – by providing things like interview skills and access to employers eager to hire, funded by the federal Department of Labor – gained nationwide attention after a “60 Minutes” piece aired about it in 2012.

Since its inception, more than 27 cities have adopted a version of the Platform to Employment program, including Rhode Island in 2016, but now Rhode Island is the first state in the country to take a chance at adopting it in a way that would specifically help those in recovery from substance abuse disorders.

“If it works here, it can work anywhere,” Carbone told the attendees. “I believe strongly that this is a part of recovery no matter what your challenge is...It's a part of a process and a goal to get to where you want to go.”

Following up on Friday, Carbone said over the phone that the program runs for five weeks, with four days of the week being full class days. The program brings in professional job trainers and psychologists to handle emotional issues that also may be plaguing people in recovery. The program pays employers who send employees to assist with the program, and even provides a $500 stipend for those who complete the class.

“If we're going to do it right, we have to be full service,” he said. “They met their trainer, spent the day yesterday [Thursday] with professional psychologists. We're getting a good, rounded approach to it and I felt the same kind of energy in the room. Being employed and pursuing some career is an important part of recovery.”

Carbone said that of the employers who work with the program, 95 percent of them end up hiring somebody who completes the program. Overall, he said participants of the program get a job successfully 85 to 90 percent of the time.

The opportunity provided by the program was not lost on those who attended the roundtable discussion.

Mary Bunn has four children under the age of 10, but addiction has taken her children from her, in addition to her job and her home. She was 50 days clean at the time of the panel discussion, however, and eager to get back on the right track. “I've never felt any better since I've been here,” she said.

Amanda Celeste, a veteran of the Army who spent a year deployed in Iraq as a medic, came home from the military with significant mental health issues that she admits to still struggling with often. She dreams of being a veterinarian or vet tech working with service animals, and is looking to go back to school through funding from Veteran Affairs. Most important to her is doing something she loves.

“I want to do something I have a passion for,” Celeste said. “If I got paid $200,000 a year and hate my job, it's not worth it. I'd rather get paid $25,000 and love it.”

Sarah Sargeant, a 24-year-old who graduated from Pilgrim High School in Warwick, was emotional about how much finding the Platform to Employment program meant to her.

“This program is really important. As addicts we already struggle with our self-worth and feel like we're not worth much,” she said. “Now we're actually working towards something and moving forward.”

Others supporting the initiative on Thursday included Scott Jensen, director of the state Department of Labor and Training and Tom Coderre, who co-chairs the Governor’s Prevent Overdose RI Task Force.

According to the Platform to Employment site, “Funding for these services is available under a grant from the Governor's Workforce Board and the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's State Opioid Response (SOR) Grant program.”

Those interested in applying to Platform to Employment should visit www.platformtoemployment.com.

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