Roxanne Decarlo of The Empowerment Center: “Think big!”

Think big! Create a clear vision for company growth and keep working on it. Being a small nonprofit you wear many hats and it is easy to get caught up in day-to-day operations. I have learned to set aside time to work toward creating new programs that will grow the organization as a whole. As a […]

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Think big! Create a clear vision for company growth and keep working on it. Being a small nonprofit you wear many hats and it is easy to get caught up in day-to-day operations. I have learned to set aside time to work toward creating new programs that will grow the organization as a whole.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Roxanne DeCarlo.

Roxanne DeCarlo is the Executive Director of The Empowerment Center in Reno, NV. She has served in this role for six years and sat on the board of directors for five years prior. She has ample experience in nonprofit management through her work with Hot August Nights and Nevada Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?

I joined The Empowerment Center in 2011 as a board member with a focus on event planning and fundraising. Over time that turned into grant writing and human resources. In 2015 the organization found themselves in need of an Executive Director and I was happy to step into that role.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?

Like so many families mine too has been impacted by alcoholism and addiction. I am involved with The Empowerment Center because I want to be a part of the solution.

Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?

There’s no simple answer for how we’ve gotten to this place. Opioid use is not new but we really can’t ignore the role that Big Pharma has played in the opioid epidemic in recent history. In the 1990s, medical professionals were prescribing opioid medications overwhelmingly to patients, with little understanding of its addictiveness and potential for misuse. They even informed patients that these medications were not addictive! However, overdoses skyrocketed and continue to skyrocket. In response, the medical community decreased their rate of prescription, but offered little support for individuals to titrate off the medication safely. This led to many people turning to the black market for heroin and other synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Today, we are in the middle of a public health crisis that has wreaked havoc on individuals, families and communities around the world.

Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?

Not only do we support women struggling with substance abuse during our four month programming, The Empowerment Center is in the midst of breaking ground on a 42 unit, affordable housing project. It will be the first of its kind in northern Nevada, providing housing to those who are looking to minimize challenges to their recovery and really see that long-term success. It will reinforce our programming focus of reclaiming autonomy through workforce development, a supportive environment and healthy habits. The pandemic has exacerbated many of the habits folks use to escape their less-than-ideal scenarios. It kept women from being able to free themselves from toxic situations, heightened stress, reduced resources… it’s been a mess for those looking to live a substance-free life. In our area, housing costs are rising quickly, so paired with the desire to escape brought on by the pandemic, substance abuse is a challenge we can’t lose sight of.

Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?

There have been so many lives changed because of The Empowerment Center. One that stands out is a woman who was incarcerated and had been through other treatments that just didn’t work for her. Once she made the commitment to go through our programming, she took right to it and now spends her days running some of our support groups to help other women in the same place she was. Her story shows how our work doesn’t just stop at the person we are treating. She is now sharing her story and experiences to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I do have a particular story…There was a young woman at The Empowerment Center who several years ago completed our program. Two years after graduating she applied to be a Peer Support Specialist. She was hired and has been helping women make it through our program for the last two year. She is an outstanding member of our team and our residents love her. She is using her very own story to help people change their lives.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?

First and foremost, for society to address this issue, each community is going to have to welcome broader conversation and drop the stigmas surrounding substance abuse. The reality is this, it’s not some underground issue that only affects a few of us here and there; far more of us have been affected by it — whether we understand that we have or not. Communities have to take up the mantle and invest in both dialog and solutions.

Second, we need to work at removing issues that keep people from recovering. We need to realize that the rising income disparity and inflation puts barriers in front of women in particular who are genuinely interested in moving toward healthier lives. They encounter so many challenges; whether it’s removing themselves from a toxic situation or trying to figure out how to get and hold a job. The decisions we make as a community need to reflect that for the entire community to thrive we have to work at removing some of these barriers. Affordable housing, better wages… these aren’t just conversations that advance politician careers; they have real-world consequences and affect real people.

Lastly, always consider what it’s like from someone else’s shoes. You don’t always know the circumstances someone was facing when they delved into addictive behaviors. We have to afford grace to these individuals. How many people do you know of who were lifted up to a better place simply by someone else’s judgements? When we afford grace and support, we empower people to do better, live better.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

Our clients transitioning out of the criminal justice system face a ton of barriers when they are released. I would love to see these three pieces of legislation introduced to help the work that we do each day with this population.

One piece of legislation that could be beneficial is to have substance use disorders protected under the Disabilities Act. If we recognized this as a disability like we have in the past, we could make treatment available to everyone who needs it. Truthfully, all individuals with substance use disorders, regardless of their drug of choice, should have access to detoxification and treatment, at no cost to them.

I would also like to see substance abuse and behaviors related to this disease decriminalized and place greater accountability on the individuals and companies that are involved with perpetuating the problem. This legislation would validate that this is a disease and evolve the way we treat individuals with substance use disorders. When clients have criminal records, it holds them back from better employment opportunities and affordable housing — basic necessities to live a safe and healthy lifestyle. It’s amazing what our clients will achieve when they’re given a little support and encouragement.

Related to this idea would be the redirection of funding to support recovery and rehabilitation services. If this redirection of funding cannot come from the criminal justice system, then we need to re-evaluate what that looks like and what is provided under that system. The reality is we need more substance abuse and mental health treatment programs that are fully funded. We also need more funds poured into addiction research, education and community outreach. We need to allocate funds to neighborhoods for at-risk and vulnerable communities for the purpose of expanding after school programs, extracurricular activities and outreach education that begins from a very young age. These communities really need more support and they really need to be given a chance to thrive.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

The women we are serving. You see them walk into our doors with the hope of a better life, and you see them walk out with that future within their reach. We work so closely with the women in our programming that they become a part of our family. Seeing the way we are able to make a difference is more than enough to get me out of bed in the morning to ensure we keep changing lives.

Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?

Absolutely! The women who have sought our help at the Empowerment Center are some of the strongest people I know. An individual makes the hardest decision of their journey by making the conscious effort to seek help. Rewriting stigmas and sharing the stories of those fighting their addictions in search of a better life all play a part with inspiring others to seek help and turn their lives around.

If we can work on affording more grace and empowering while simultaneously chipping away at those barriers to recovery, I have hope those numbers will begin coming down.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me leadership means guiding an individual, group or organization toward a common goal. Personally, I try to cast a clear vision that’s in line with our mission statement. Making sure that staff understands and truly wants to be a part of that vision. Based on the vision, goals are created that will help the team bring that vision to fruition. If we ever find ourselves asking why…we go back to our mission statement. I am very lucky at The Empowerment Center. Our entire team is here because they want to be part of the solution. I have never seen so many hearts for changing lives.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

This is a tough question. I have been with the organization for quite some time and have learned so much over the years. I have also had a few key people who always made themselves available to me when I need advice or assistance. With that being said I wish that someone told me:

  1. There will be good days and hard days. Don’t let the hard days keep you from moving forward.
  2. Think big! Create a clear vision for company growth and keep working on it. Being a small nonprofit you wear many hats and it is easy to get caught up in day-to-day operations. I have learned to set aside time to work toward creating new programs that will grow the organization as a whole.
  3. Have unwavering empathy, never stop engaging with the people you serve. It is easy to get caught up in your office or find yourself in meeting after meeting. It is important for me to take the time to get to know the residents here at The Empowerment Center. Have lunch or a dinner with them to hear their success and their disappointments. These interactions continue to drive me to keep doing what I am doing.
  4. It is ok to say “no,” or, “thanks but no thanks.” In order to preserve the health of our organization sometimes I have to take a pass on a new project or partnership. It is important that we keep to our mission statement. Getting spread too thin could put us in jeopardy.
  5. Take good care of your team! When hiring, think of the team just as much as you think about the position objectives. Being a small organization we all work very closely together. It is important to find team members that not only fill the qualifications but will fit well within the organization.

All of these things I have learned over the years, some were tough lessons.

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. 🙂

This might sound corny but kindness, and not as a random act but as a practice. If we all make an effort to show kindness everyday, even to people that may not deserve it I think our country would be a better place to live in.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Change is always possible! So many of our women feel they are beyond hope and that it is too late for them. The Empowerment Center shows each woman that, no matter where they came from or what they have done, change is always possible.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Oprah Winfrey — I admire her philanthropy and her work to raise awareness and create social change.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers are able to find us on our Facebook page at

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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