Offering hope: Locals in recovery

MIDDLEBURY — Garrett Charleton knows what makes a good employee. He successfully ran his company, Happy Valley Painters, in Rutland County for 21 years before moving it to Middlebury this past November.
Among his past employees have been people recovering from substance use disorder. These people sometimes have difficulty finding a good job — even in an economy like Vermont’s that has a shrinking workforce.
Although he didn’t necessarily seek out such workers, Charlton said his experience with those in recovery has been good and now he plans to hire employees through a staffing service that specializes in placing workers with substance abuse in their past.
Charleton’s reason is simple.
“Everybody deserves a second chance,” he said.
Frank Provato, a doctor at the Mountain Health Center in Bristol, said that employment helps aid recovery. He coordinates the center’s medication-assisted treatment program for opioid users. Provato said that employment matters because it offers those in recovery a sense of purpose, as well as an income.
“Recovery ought to be a gradual process of reinstating a normal way of life,” he said. “Many people with substance use disorder come to us with no job, no housing, no car, no money. So the money is essential to help them perform the activities of daily living.”
Jobs also keep people occupied, which can prevent them from falling into bad habits.
“Boredom is the enemy of recovery,” Provato said. “Working gives them something to do.”
Provato has referred patients to Working Fields, a staffing agency that specializes in finding jobs for people in recovery from substance use disorder. The agency was founded by people in long-term recovery themselves and already operates in Franklin, Chittenden and Rutland counties. It is just starting up its service here, and Happy Valley Painters will be its first client in Addison County.
Working Fields founder Mickey Wiles explained that he started the business a couple years ago because, despite Vermont’s shrinking labor force, it is still difficult for those in recovery to find jobs. This is especially true for those with criminal records. Wiles explained that Working Fields provides recovery-specific support to employees, including mandatory weekly coaching.
Colleen Hobbs, who currently manages the Working Fields Rutland office, will oversee the expansion into Addison County. Once the company matches an employee to a company, Hobbs said Working Fields functions much like any other temp agency. The employee receives their pay through Working Fields for the first five months, after which the employer has the option to hire the worker directly.
Hobbs said Working Fields looks for companies like Happy Valley Painters — businesses with job openings, often in trade or manufacturing — who are interested in hiring employees full time after the five month trial period ends.
Of the 300 people that Working Fields has worked with over the last two years, Wiles said that 20 percent have gone on to full-time employment at their placement companies. Others have taken their new skills to finds jobs elsewhere.
“Typically we fill jobs with employers that they are having a really hard time filling,” Hobbs said. “There’s this little gold mine of people who by and large really want to work that employers just don’t know about and we can take the risk factor and the trepidation out of it.”
Hobbes also noted that, in her experience, many of the employees she helps place show tremendous dedication to their jobs.
“They are grateful for the second chance and they’re afraid of blowing it so they’re going to go that extra mile,” she said.
Hobbs grew up in Salisbury, and as a person in long-term recovery, Working Fields’ mission is personal to her.
“Work is a part of who you are. One of the first things we ask somebody when we meet them is ‘what do you do?’ It is a big piece of your identity,” she said. “Recovery is like a three legged stool: you’ve got to have treatment, you’ve got to have housing and you’ve got to have employment. Those are human necessities and people in recovery are no different.”
Some local businesses already hire employees in recovery. Mark Perrin, who owns Green Peppers Pizza in Middlebury, has made it a point to hire second chance employees and he believes that other local businesses should, too.
“Any time you own a business you’re a leader whether you like it or not. I think that with the way our society is now that leaders have to step up and take chances,” Perrin said. “It’s my personal belief that when you’re in a position to help people you do it.”
Perrin acknowledged that it can be difficult to support employees in recovery, especially for small business owners. However, he tries to give second chances when he can.
“It’s about what kind of culture you’re trying to build,” he said.
One of his employees in recovery, Abbi Lengyel, has worked at Green Peppers for three years. A Middlebury native, Lengyel will have been sober four years next month. She said that she never had problems finding work in that time, but she used to struggle to keep jobs.
“Basically Green Peppers has taught me how to have a work ethic again,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have made it this far without Mark and Green Peppers.”
Lengyel currently works as an assistant manager in the kitchen, and she credits Perrin with helping her learn to manage the stress of work without turning to drugs.
“It just helps to have somebody who cares,” she said. “Having a job is super important in recovery. A job adds meaning to life and offers a stable, safe environment that can keep those in recovery focused and on the right track. It helps in making one feel like they are a valuable part of a community and can live what they considered to be a normal, productive life.”
Jesse Brooks is Regional Prevention Coordinator at the United Way of Addison County and helps those struggling with substance use disorder. She believes that helping people like Lengyel back into the workforce helps the whole community.
“There are plenty of negative beliefs about people in recovery returning to the workforce,” Brooks said. “The reality is in the long run it’s an investment not only in the person and the business but also in the community. When we have healthier individuals in our community we are a healthier county as a whole.”

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