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Climbing to Greater Heights

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Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rams in Recovery is making major strides this year in helping students feel at home on campus.

There is a lot of excitement these days over at “The Well.” This past year, the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Wellness Resource Center has been the main stage for elevating Rams in Recovery to its next level.

The latest buzz is over a new, dedicated space where students in recovery can gather. The cozy 16-by-19-foot room — complete with a flat screen TV and comfortable furniture — is just the next step in making VCU students feel right at home on campus.

Rams in Recovery was founded in 2013 with grants from Transforming Youth Recovery and the John Henry Watkins Foundation Inc., which was named in honor of a James Madison University student who died battling substance abuse and now seeks to promote recovery in young adults.

The official student group has come a long way from its origins, when Linda Hancock, director of the Wellness Resource Center, and Kristen Donovan, assistant director of substance abuse education and recovery support, began meeting with local substance abuse counselors Barbara Burke and Thomas Bannard, who were then the managers of homeless shelter operations at CARITAS in the metro Richmond, Virginia area.

“We all saw the need for a collegiate recovery program at the university, so we began working together to host informal gatherings for students in recovery, which turned into regular meetings,” says Bannard. Last fall, in a sign of commitment to grow the program, the university hired him as the first program coordinator of Rams in Recovery.

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The job brings Bannard, who is in long-term recovery himself, full circle: As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, he was forced to drop out in his senior year because of his addiction. “Even though I only had one semester remaining when I returned, I benefited in a big way from the collegiate recovery program,” he says. “It gave me an instant group of friends and made me feel at home, which was critical.”

Upon his arrival at VCU, Bannard immediately set his sights on promoting the existence of Rams in Recovery. “We are a huge university and have many commuters; with 32,000 people, it’s easy to get lost,” he says. “I have heard stories from commuters who would drive 30 minutes back home in between classes because they didn’t feel comfortable on campus. That’s not okay.”

Bannard says that when students in recovery return to school it is less a question of the university taking a risk on that student; it’s more about the students taking a risk in returning to institutions that are ill-equipped to support them. “This is the point of a collegiate recovery program: If you support students in recovery in proactive ways, they do really well academically and socially,” he says.

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