If you just consistently show up, anything is possible. I balanced my old career in producing corporate events for the entertainment industry and sports for almost a year while simultaneously co-founding Awakening Recovery as a startup non-profit organization. There were many days I questioned whether Awakening Recovery was going to happen. By just showing up and doing what was in front of me each day to accomplish and not buying into doubt, I was able to do this. And with a dedicated team of like minded folks, I created this nonprofit corporation, recruited a Board, found a house, built our philosophy and peer mentoring recovery home process, raised the necessary funds to open, and began accepting residents.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Van Der Velde.
David got clean and sober in 1988 at the age of 19, close to death from his own struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism. Now 32+ years clean and sober, he has been consistently active in his recovery community by mentoring others, serves on recovery and youth related non-profit Boards such as LifeWorks and the West Hollywood Recovery Center, and serves on panels at institutions speaking from his own experience about recovery.
In 2015, David chose to transition from a 25-year career in producing large-scale corporate events for the sports, entertainment and non-profit sectors, to co-founding Awakening Recovery as its Executive Director and Board member, helping those looking for a long-term recovery solution regardless of access to funds. Additionally, David has successfully completed his Certificate in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling from UCLA. He now devotes his personal and professional life to helping people find a long-term recovery solution from drug addiction and alcoholism through the life-saving work at Awakening Recovery and in his recovery community at large.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been clean and sober since I was 19, so I’ve been in 12-Step recovery for the last 32+ years. Around 12 years ago when I turned 40 years old and 20 years sober, I felt a calling to devote my life to helping people in recovery beyond my own personal 12-Step recovery support group. About seven years ago I was helping someone in early recovery who had lost both his legs in a drug psychosis car accident and was court ordered to treatment for a year. As I made the rounds with him to various detoxes, inpatient residential treatment centers and recovery homes, and he continued to struggle, I realized how passionate I was about helping people who were struggling find a long-term recovery solution. This intense personal service opportunity was the seed that led to me co-founding Awakening Recovery, a non-profit recovery home in West Los Angeles that focuses on a long-term recovery solution over 12+ months.
Our residents engage in a 12-Step process in a family peer mentoring lead environment to create connection, community, and deep and lasting changes in their core beliefs and behaviors to awaken long-term recovery. This is my 2.0 and what I hope is the last job I ever have. It is the fire in my belly to help others find the same lasting recovery that I have found, one that has transformed me from a helpless and hopeless drug addict and alcoholic, into a man committed to helping others.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Awakening Recovery (AR) is filled with triumphs that come out of tragedy. A few years ago, one of our graduates from Philadelphia referred one of his family friends to us as a resident. About three months later, our resident’s sister tragically died of an opiate overdose in a non-structured sober living the day she was supposed to go to a structured long-term recovery solution. This traumatic experience hit him and his family very hard and by extension our house and our community. The whole AR community, including residents, graduates, staff, and graduate families, rallied around our resident and his family to support them through the excruciating pain and loss created by the death of his sister. That resident is now a graduate himself, has begun healing and learning to live with the loss of his sister, living independently with another graduate, has a full-time job, and is about to celebrate 2 years of sobriety. He now uses his own pain and recovery to be of service to others who have had similar losses and show them it is possible to survive and thrive in recovery. His story has also inspired us to pursue opening a women’s house so people like his sister have a nonprofit long-term recovery solution available to them, which we hope to have open in the Summer/Fall of this year.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As anyone who has been involved in creating a startup nonprofit organization can tell you, it is filled with mistakes, trials by fire, and tribulations. I believe that God is less concerned with us falling down, than how we get back up. One of my most memorable shortcomings in our first year of operations was trying to balance taking residents to court and probation myself while building and operating a nonprofit from the ground up. My pride and ego was invested in taking every resident to their court and probation appointments as an opportunity to help them be able to stay in our house as an alternative to incarceration. While this was an altruistic endeavor, where some of my best memories of getting to know new residents took place, it has also become a great opportunity for our alumni and staff to make those same connections with our new residents, the courts and probation departments, as our organization continues to grow. The funny stories I’ve shared with our residents of my lived experience in recovery and theirs in return during what is usually an anxiety ridden trip for them, were some of the most rewarding and ones we have used to bring comfort to each resident facing these hurdles in their early recovery.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Thankfully, there is a lot of focus in the news now on alternatives to incarceration and homelessness. Most of our residents come to us with a history of incarceration and/or periodic or chronic homelessness. Being a nonprofit that never says no to a willing resident for lack of access to funds through scholarships available from our generous donors, we are a lifesaving and long-term life-building alternative to incarceration and publicly funded homeless services in LA County. Our year plus, peer-mentoring recovery home environment helps our residents actually awaken to a new way of living that allows for long-term recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. We know through our own experience that building deep connections and community is the long-term solution to many of our social problems and Awakening Recovery has created a community of recovery support not only to help people get sober but to mentor them on how to live a sober life based on being of service to others. Having successfully created an ongoing community for our men’s house we are now pursuing opening a women’s house this year so women can find the long-term recovery solution that our men’s house alumni prosper from.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One our residents came to us in our first year of operations on a court order as an alternative to incarceration. We helped him convince the courts to allow him to be able to be at our recovery home vigorously pursuing his recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. He came out of the foster care system he grew up in and had many adverse childhood experiences that made it unlikely he would have lived to arrive at our house at all. He came to us broken, untrusting of anyone with a wicked methamphetamine addiction that had caused tremendous wreckage in his adult life, which eventually led to his court order to Awakening Recovery. Through having the gift and grace of desperation and willingness to go to any lengths to overcome his addiction and past traumas, he spent over a year and a half with us, graduating, moving out with two other graduates, building and healing his relationships with his family, and has become one of our key full time employees. He is just one of the miracles we have experienced go through our house, and now he gets to give that experience back to our current residents showing them as a living example that being happy, joyous, and free from drug addiction and alcoholism is not only possible, but a reality.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1. More Focus on Long-Term Recovery: There is a lot of focus on short-term 30/60/90 day clinical treatment modalities for those seeking recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. These are valuable options that save lives. These clinical treatment sources know the research shows (NIH) that the longer someone stays in the same place, doing the same thing with the same people to pursue their recovery with connection and community, provides the best long-term outcomes.
2. Not Enough Affordable Access to Substance Use Treatment and other Recovery Solutions: According to the most recent NSDUH report (National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2019- page 63) less than 12% of those who need substance use treatment or a long-term recovery solution get it, largely due to lack of access due to financial hardships or lack of insurance. Affordable access to long-term and effective recovery solutions needs to be improved to help stem the tide of fast increasing overdoses.
3. Long-term Abstinence Based Recovery Solutions That Do Not Accept Buprenorphine or Methadone based MAT (medically assisted treatment) as a part of their process are largely ineligible for public funding: There is an important slice of the pie in the recovery continuum that seek out recovery solutions that do not include Buprenorphine and Methadone based MAT, and they should be eligible for public funding, but aren’t largely due to profit motives and politics. The fast growing populations of those struggling from poly-substance opioid and methamphetamine addiction, who have used and abused Buprenorphine and Methadone based MAT while continuing to use methamphetamine and/or cocaine, often seek an abstinence based long-term solution that excludes those types of MAT in their living environment, some because they have become addicted to Buprenorphine or Methadone. According to the most recent NSDUH report (National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2019 — page 14) Buprenorphine remains the most misused prescription opioid. Ironically, detox from Buprenorphine and Methadone use and abuse often take far longer than opioids and methamphetamine.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
In my experience good leadership requires leading from example. If you don’t walk the walk, why should those who choose to be led by you do the same. At Awakening Recovery, whether you are a resident, alumni, or staff (including me), there is a cultural norm that everyone is open to being held accountable and take personal responsibility for their actions. If a resident with one day in the house comes to me and wants to ask if I put a recyclable in the non-recyclable trash, it is perfectly acceptable for them to do so, and it is my responsibility to take the time to engage them in a way that has integrity and demonstrates that even in the little things accountability matters.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- If you just consistently show up, anything is possible. I balanced my old career in producing corporate events for the entertainment industry and sports for almost a year while simultaneously co-founding Awakening Recovery as a startup non-profit organization. There were many days I questioned whether Awakening Recovery was going to happen. By just showing up and doing what was in front of me each day to accomplish and not buying into doubt, I was able to do this. And with a dedicated team of like minded folks, I created this nonprofit corporation, recruited a Board, found a house, built our philosophy and peer mentoring recovery home process, raised the necessary funds to open, and began accepting residents.
- There’s no “I” in team. The times that have been most challenging have been when I think I can do this or have to do this by myself. Help is always available when I honestly seek it out, accept it and act on it. It’s easy when I get busy with multiple deadlines to think I am the only one that can do everything that needs to happen, and not trust that I can delegate part of what’s on my plate to others on my team. Most of the time my stressed out belief that I “have” to do something, if I just take a step back and breathe, can be handled by the trusted people I have surrounded myself with to make things happen. This is true whether it is a fellow Board member, staff, referral sources, vendors, alumni, or even our residents.
- Community and Connection are the solution. These are core elements of our philosophy for residents and alumni but it is equally valuable for every part of our organization. We are all part of a community of support. Often when speaking with new, prospective or ongoing donors, my ability to authentically connect with them and showing them what it feels like being a part of our community is what is most attractive, in addition to supporting our mission.
- The miracle is in the pause. I need to be willing to hear others from their perspective before responding. This is a mantra in the house with residents, but I have found that if I really listen to the person I’m in a conversation with from their perspective first, without judgment, I’m in a much better position for them to feel heard and for me to be open-minded to a new perspective I haven’t fully considered. There are many times with my team, especially when I have a lot on my plate at the moment, that I want to quickly solve a problem and move on. However, if I take the time in the moment to give my full attention and hear them from their perspective first, and genuinely show interest in what they need from me, I don’t miss an opportunity to connect with them and understand their approach, which is most beneficial for them and our organization.
- Always be curious. My lack of imagination, boredom, dissatisfaction, etc. often emanates from my lack of willingness to be curious. If I’m willing to be curious my intuition, which I have come to find is one of my most valuable assets, has an opportunity to see past the surface and seek depth and weight in my interactions with everyone I encounter. I remember many times a new resident would come up to me and ask what seemed like a very straight forward question. When I engaged with curiosity, I was able to have the humility to look past the surface issue and inquire about why they were asking the question and why it was important to them in that moment, which allows me to be of better service to them in their healing process.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The breakdown of the family unit in this country I believe is one of the most urgent and pervasive issues of our time. It is the source of adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) that lead to a split in our minds, bodies and spirits that cause toxic stress and some of the worst problems in our society. In our pursuit of progress, we have lost some of the most important aspects of what make us human. An example of an aspect of this movement is the tremendous work and progress Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, now our first Surgeon General of CA, has made in her pursuit of requiring all pediatricians to do ACE’s screenings as a part of their initial appointments with patients to identify the whole picture of what is happening to our youth and mapping out a treatment plan to address their deficits. Similarly, at Awakening Recovery, we understand the disease of drug addiction and alcoholism is a family disease because it affects the entire family while in their addiction and in recovery. Generational trauma, epigenetics, archetypes, family dynamics, and family roles growing up and their effects on triggering obsessive, compulsive and addictive behavioral patterns early in life that continue into adult life are all informed by the breakdown of the family unit. These issues, especially as they relate to the maladaptive behavior of our residents in the house during their first year in recovery, become a catalyst for healing. Many are doing important work to heal the breakdown of the family unit in this country, and Awakening Recovery is doing its part to help our residents heal in a safe, peer-mentoring family environment, to give them the tools to save their own lives through the connection and community we provide.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Act your way into right thinking. Faith without works is dead indeed for those in recovery. Our intentions mean little if they are not accompanied by consistent right action, and integrity is doing the right thing when no one is around to witness it. If my feet are moving in the same direction as my mouth I’m in trouble, I’m lacking authenticity, and I’m not building trust with those around me. It is definitely progress not perfection, but as long as I’m willing to continue to seek and improve my ability to act better than I feel through accessing my support group and working through adversity, I’m not just knowing the path, I’m walking the path in the right direction.
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