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The Ultimate Volunteer

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You’d better eat your Wheaties if you want to keep up with Barbara Dwyer. A little Starbucks might also be in order.

When this Texas dynamo spotted what she calls a “humongous gap” in the Houston recovery community, she got pretty fired up. And then she got busy, spearheading Cougars in Recovery, which launched last fall at the University of Houston. If you’ve ever wondered what one determined parent can accomplish, just ask Barbara—and then fasten your seatbelt.

Photo courtesy of Cypress Photography

Photo courtesy of Cypress Photography

Q What kind of training prepared you to get a CRC off the ground?

A None! I’ve never done anything like this before. [Laughter] I’m a volunteer and a mom. I have a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in special education. After teaching elementary school for 19 years, I stopped working during my son’s freshman year at a recovery high school. That was a blessing because we were very involved with one of the Alternative Peer Groups (APGs) here in Houston. I became their parent coordinator and ran a fund-raiser for them. I just feel like God gave me all these opportunities to do smaller jobs in preparation for creating this program.

Q So what took you from high school volunteer to university program coordinator?

A When my son was a senior and we started looking at colleges, the only Collegiate Recovery Programs in Texas were at Texas Tech and the University of Texas at Austin. All through high school, my son talked about going to Texas Tech. But when it came right down to it, he didn’t want to go that far away from home. That’s when this light bulb went off in my head, and I realized we have a humongous gap in the Houston recovery community. We have all kinds of support for high school students and adolescents, but our college population was leaving town to participate in collegiate recovery.

Q It can be tough to get all the right people on board at a University. How did you manage at U of H?

quoteA I got in touch with Alex Bonetti,  who is now on our advisory committee. He had gone through the program at UT and was interested in getting something started. When we met with the university, they were very interested in the program, but we were coming in during the middle of a budget cycle, and they didn’t have any money to give us. I basically told them not to worry about that—we’d make it happen. And instead of telling me that I was a crazy woman and ordering me off campus, they gave me an office! I probably cut through some red tape faster than I should have, but three university leaders in particular recognized my passion and allowed me to forge ahead anyway— Dr. Richard Walker, who is our vice chancellor; Floyd Robinson, assistant vice president for Health and Wellness; and Don Yackley, executive director of Student Housing and Residential Life. From day one, we’ve had their support, which has allowed our program to offer services that are unheard of in new collegiate recovery programs, such as sober housing in year one and a lounge space with 24-hour student access. We are extremely grateful to be part of a university that aims to create an environment in which every student can succeed.

Q Once you had buy-in, how did you get the program started?

A We’re using the Texas Tech model. I went and visited Tech and met with their leaders. Then I went to UT and met with their leaders. I also met with a group of students at both of those universities and with students here on our campus at U of H. And I met with both senior classes at the recovery high schools in Houston, asking the kids what fears they had about going to college and what they felt were the most important components of a program, especially one that was going to be functioning on a very skeletal budget in the beginning.

I took all of that information and started creating a vision statement and a mission statement and an application for Cougars in Recovery and got it out to all the APGs and to people I knew in recovery. From there, I wrote four grant proposals and raised enough money to hire our program director, John Shiflet. Now Student Affairs has hired a full-time director of advancement, who is working with us to raise money. It’s just one of those things where God put the right people in my path as I did it.

Q Any idea of what’s on the horizon for the program?

A Oh, I have a five-year plan. [Laughter] It was a little bit difficult last semester because my son is in the program, and I don’t have a background in counseling, so I was never comfortable facilitating meetings. But now that John is on board, he is facilitating meetings and acting as an educator and mentor to our students.

Like any program in its infancy, ours has had some challenges in securing adequate funding, which is a top priority. But with the support of the university and the community, we plan to offer both academic and housing scholarships in the near future. As a recovery program, we also strive to give back to our community by volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, working with a volunteer organization on campus called MVP, and supporting the adolescent recovery community.

In the future—and by that I mean next year—I want to start offering students the opportunity to support others in need during spring break. I will start with a weeklong trip, working with Habitat for Humanity or a similar organization to build a home for others in the United States. My daughter actually went on a trip like this to Nicaragua, and for her it was a life-changing experience. Every year, Texas Tech takes their students on a three-week trip to Ghana to work with people in recovery there, and that’s my ultimate goal—international service trips for our students.

Q Define “ultimate goal.”

A Five years from today! I’ve received immense support from others who have created CRCs before me. Through this sharing of experience and knowledge, I’ve been able to establish a viable program at the University of Houston rather quickly. As our program grows, we will continue to support our students in recovery as they choose to experience college life substance free. So ultimately—we have the ability to save lives!

Barbara Dwyer and John Shiflet Photo courtesy of Esteban Valencia

Barbara Dwyer and John Shiflet
Photo courtesy of Esteban Valencia

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