BRATTLEBORO — One of the latest Leadership Southeast Vermont graduates is a familiar face in the recovery community and social justice circles.
"We are already leaders because we are on the front lines of the work," Vanessa Santana, 36, of Brattleboro, said of the class. "What it does is it teaches us anyone can be a leader — you're the leader but you also lead by example."
Leadership Southeast Vermont is a non-profit organization based in Springfield that provides programming for participants from different sectors of the community (for profit, nonprofit and government). It was founded in 1999 to help local leaders make their communities better.
Santana, a recovery coach at Turning Point of Windham County and the emergency department at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, said the classes finished up on an online platform because of COVID-19. The group had visited the Statehouse and learned about government, Vermont history, the health care system, corrections, economics, media, and resources that are available in Windham and Windsor counties.
Santana attended monthly sessions since September and graduated in late June. Her boss Suzie Walker, executive director of Turning Point recovery center, called her "a true rock star" for investing time to add to "her already amazing leadership skills."
Walker said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, contacted her last July about "an engaging young woman" she met while walking out to her car after the fireworks on July 4.
"Jeanette was very impressed by how well Vanessa presented herself and talked with passion about her work and how involved she is in the community," Walker said in an email to members of the media and community. "The senator offered Vanessa a full scholarship to the Leadership Southeast Vermont session that started in September."
For the final project, Santana composed slam poetry about how she felt about COVID-19. In it, she expresses frustration with stay-at-home orders and losing freedoms but she also acknowledges how community members depend on one another and she encourages leadership.
Presently, Santana is taking classes for an associate's degree. She is leaning towards pursuing a career as a substance abuse counselor.
Santana also works with the Root Social Justice Center, where she sits on the collective and helps run a support group called Families United that is open to anyone affected by the state's Department of Children and Families. Families United meets every other Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. via Zoom videoconference for now.
"We're trying to create systemic change in DCF, family court and the legislative system," Santana said.
Domestic violence brought her to Brattleboro from Massachusetts in 2014. Drugs and alcohol were a problem, but two years later, she was clean and sober. She credits the community for making her the person she's become.
Santana described experiencing childhood trauma.
"Growing up I didn't have stability," she said. "I didn't have really positive people in my life."
That led to what she called "a destructive path" in her early teenage years. She said she had a lot of suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression that prompted her use of drugs and alcohol.
When one of her two daughters was born, Santana was prescribed Oxycodin. She said she was "instantly hooked" on the painkiller.
"It just numbed everything," she said. "It made everything feel OK. That was really a spiral in my life. I started to lose everything that was of value to me."
Santana attributed her substance use to troubles she had paying her bills, managing her life and being a productive member of society. Cocaine and marijuana also are part of her story.
It was not until her children went into state custody that she started to become serious about sobriety.
"Part of my heart was ripped out of me — it's just that loneliness," she said. "I didn't know I had a problem with using. I didn't know that recovery was possible. I didn't know that was something people talk about."
Santana started going to Turning Point the first day she left a treatment center, then began volunteering at the Brattleboro recovery center. After about 14 months, she decided she wanted to be a recovery coach. And soon, she was reunited with her daughters, which she said was only possible "because I was doing the next right thing, because I was working a program of recovery."
Now, Santana relays the message that recovery is possible to struggling community members. As a recovery coach, she meets with those referred from local organizations such as the Brattleboro Retreat and Groundworks Collaborative. She helps facilitates recovery meetings.
Santana also was recruited to be a Smart Recovery coach. She described the program as a way to teach people about coping skills, having a balanced life, and managing thoughts and behaviors.
"Overall, my experience has been amazing," she said. "I have a life I never thought was possible. My life makes sense today. I never have to go back to feeling hopeless or useless."
"Today," she added, "I'm able to feel things, you know? Before, I would just try to suppress my feelings. Today, I don't have to do that."
Santana believes the
pandemic will change how she and other recovery coaches will connect with people. Living in a rural area where transportation may be a barrier, she pointed to the use of digital platforms to hold meetings as a good way to expand access to recovery.
For now, Santana gets a page from the emergency department when someone needs a call. She also provides one-on-one coaching.
Another part of her work involves Project CARE or Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement, a program the Brattleboro Police Department started in collaboration with local organizations to steer individuals toward treatment.
"We try to meet people where they're at," Santana said.
She said the group will provide resources such as meeting information and Narcan, which is used to counteract opioid overdoses. She noted the program also is about building relationships and reducing stigma about police.
Santana recalled meeting weekly with a young man living in the streets and sleeping near the Brattleboro Food Co-op. She said that last October, he was ready to go to a treatment facility and recently celebrated seven months of sobriety.
"We're seeing the miracle," she said. "I always say when you start seeing this little flicker of hope in people's eyes then they start changing. They start making sense of their life. Next thing you know, they have the house, the car, they're going to meetings and life is making sense again."
In a letter of recommendation for Leadership Southeast Vermont, Walker called Santana "a valued member of our peer-recovery team" at Turning Point for the past four years and "a key member of our police-led Project CARE" program.
"In that time, I've watched her blossom as a peer-recovery advocate and enjoy numerous successes in both her personal and professional lives," Walker wrote. "Vanessa began as a center guest and quickly became a volunteer who was eager to support, and launch, recovery programs. When we saw her passion and commitment, we invited her to attend the Vermont Recovery Coach Academy and take additional trainings, including group facilitation."
Walker noted that a grant program through the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development allowed Santana to "work directly with new mothers in recovery to help them navigate the postpartum period, which can be a particularly vulnerable time for women who are both in recovery and new to motherhood."
"Vanessa is tenacious, inventive, and very committed to participating in her community," Walker wrote. "We can always rely on Vanessa to share her experience with our programming partners, our center guests and volunteers, and the community at large. Vanessa knows how important hope was in her healing from past issues, and she's eager to convey hope to others."
Angela Berkfield, co-founder and collective member of the Root Social Justice Center, described Santana as "a person with so many positive leadership attributes."
"She has a lot of compassion for people who are struggling and she has great ideas for ways to support people," Berkfield wrote in a letter of recommendation for the leadership program. "Her commitment to the programs she leads is incredible and she continues to show up, even when things get hard."
Matt Dove, advanced practice registered nurse at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, commended Santana's dedication to her work and community, calling it "a great asset" to the emergency department at the hospital.
"The work of a recovery coach requires not only skill and training, but also empathy, flexibility and wisdom," Dove told the Reformer. "Vanessa has all of these and shares them with her clients and coworkers alike."
At the graduation ceremony held remotely in late June, Santana said she learned a lot about how the legislative process works and affects communities.
"I enjoyed too how we're all collectively connected, right, within this class?" she said. "We have different resources that we didn't have before. How amazing is that?"
Santana said she could not wait to apply what she learned from the classes within the community. She described how issues have only grown since the pandemic.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and at
@CMaysBR on Twitter.