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Spreading the Message of Hope

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Photography by Regan Stelling

It was Nicholas Hayes’ first day clean. He and his parents were sitting in the waiting room at a treatment center in Nashville, where Hayes would soon be assessed and admitted to detox. A man wearing a seersucker suit with a bow tie and a brightly colored pocket square walked up to the trio and introduced himself. Hayes doesn’t remember anything Tom Bennett said to him that day — although he does remember Bennett was wearing leather loafers without any socks — but he knows it’s the day his life changed forever.

And there are many more people who say the same thing. As the higher education recovery coordinator at Acadia Healthcare and a pioneer in the collegiate recovery movement, Bennett is in the business of changing lives.

“Whatever the issue, the project, the idea, Tom Bennett’s primary focus is what can we do for the person who is still struggling,” says Kitty Harris, who established Texas Tech University as the model for collegiate recovery programming and is now the executive partner for collegiate recovery with Summit BHC. “His biggest impact has been that he was one of the early believers in what we were doing at Texas Tech. As he came across emerging adults in recovery, he knew there was something more out there for them. His legacy will be how he helped spread the word, how he helped other people believe the difference edu-cation can make and how recovery in higher education can impact the field of addiction and recovery.”

The Spark

Tom Bennett grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and graduated from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Had it not been for organic chemistry, he would have been a pharmacist, but the student struggled in school. Unsure of what he wanted to do, he cycled through several majors before landing on education. However, Bennett got a job in the medical device industry, where he worked for the next 26 years.

After getting sober in 2001, Bennett, like many people in recovery, started looking for a way to give back and to do something different with the balance of his life. He returned to the treatment center that helped him get clean, only this time as a clinical outreach coordinator. It was at an Association of Recovery Schools conference in 2008 where Bennett first heard of collegiate recovery.

“From a developmental standpoint, being able to get students into recovery and put them into an educational environment increases their chances of recovery,” Harris says.

One of the challenges for emerging adults in early recovery is giving up the addict identity and building a new identity. Education can play a huge role in helping people sustain recovery by allowing them to develop a new self-image: the student.

“But what’s the worst environment for people in recovery?” Harris says. “A college campus. That’s what started me in this movement. These kids deserve a chance.”

He met the trailblazers in school-based recovery support services at Rutgers University, Texas Tech University, Augsburg College, Case Western Reserve University and Kennesaw State University. Interested in learning more, Bennett hopped on a plane to Lubbock, Texas, to meet with Harris, who was then the director of the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech.

“The trajectory of my life changed when I visited that program,” Bennett says.

For the first time, Bennett saw a higher education institution meeting the needs of the growing population of recovering emerging adults. The collegiate recovery community didn’t only provide a safe haven for students struggling to maintain their abstinence in a place where sobriety is anything but the norm. It also enhanced their academic success.

There were so few campuses that validated students in recovery and even fewer — if any — treatment centers that worked with colleges and universities to offer a solution to students needing help with substance abuse.

“I believe one of the reasons colleges weren’t effectively addressing substance use issues was because it was a seemingly insurmountable issue,” Bennett says. “They didn’t know where to start. The collegiate recovery movement was a starting point for that in the beginning to show there was a solution.”

The Cheerleader

"Whatever the issue, the project, the idea, Tom Bennett's primary focus is what can we do for the person who is still struggling," says Kitty Harris

“Whatever the issue, the project, the idea, Tom Bennett’s primary focus is what can we do for the person who is still struggling,” says Kitty Harris

Hayes was sitting across the table from Bennett — still sockless — sharing a meal. Now seven months sober, Hayes was struggling with what it meant to be an emerging adult in recovery, asking questions many in recovery do. Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I here? How am I going to manage to get a good job? How am I going to be a productive member of society?

Bennett started talking about the collegiate recovery community he had just visited at Texas Tech. But Hayes had already tried college. Before treatment, he had attended the University of Alabama, earning only 20 credit hours before dropping out after his sophomore year. He wasn’t really interested in going back to school.

“Tom just told me to trust him,” Hayes recalls. “If I was willing to do something different and to give this place a chance, I needed to trust him.”

A couple months later, Hayes was on a plane to Lubbock. Upon seeing the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities — in the middle of campus, a stone’s throw away from the main administration building and the student union building — Hayes felt at home.

“It wasn’t a head thing; it was a heart thing,” Hayes says. “Knowing that we were a part of instead of apart from. You can’t manufacture that.”

Tom Bennett's sock free look. Photography by Regan Stelling

Tom Bennett’s sock free look. Photography by Regan Stelling

The Connector

Amy Fisher was at the Mississippi Addiction Conference in Hattiesburg when a man wearing tortoise-shell glasses — and no socks — walked up to her and introduced himself: “Hi, my name is Tom Bennett, and we’ve got to talk.”

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