Recovery coaches help people overcome addiction, mental illness

BATAVIA, OH (Oct. 4, 2019) — Rhonda Birkhimer, 41, calls herself a “hope dealer.”

Officially, Birkhimer works as a “certified peer recovery support specialist” for the Hope Community Center for Mental Wellness in Amelia.

“I like hope dealer, or recovery coach, better,” Birkhimer said. “That connects with people who are struggling.”

Birkhimer joins a handful of other peer recovery support specialists in Clermont County, dealing hope to people struggling with addiction, mental health issues, trauma, codependency and the like. The Clermont County Mental Health and Recovery Board was one of the first in the state to recognize the importance of recovery coaches, using them in treatment and as a voice in the community. In 2014, Birkhimer and best friend Kristy Mudd were the first two certified recovery coaches in Clermont County.

“I’m in the field the majority of the time, at agencies, the courts, doing home visits,” Birkhimer said. She’s assigned to Judge James Shriver’s Family Recovery Court and Clermont County Municipal Court’s Intensive Supervision Probation. She works indirectly with the Clermont Recovery Center, Quick Response Teams, recovery houses and Mercy Health – Clermont Hospital.

Birkhimer and Mudd earned certification through the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.  In Ohio, peer recovery supporters become certified by taking in-person training or by having three years of work or volunteer experience as a peer navigator, peer specialist, peer supporter, or peer recovery coach. Regardless of the pathway to certification, individuals must also complete 16 hours of online E-Based Academy courses, which include topics such as ethics, human trafficking and trauma-informed care, pass the OhioMHAS Peer Recovery Services exam, sign and agree to the OhioMHAS Peer Recovery Services Code of Ethics and pass a Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BCI) background check.

Peer recovery supporters provide community-based services for people with a mental illness or substance use disorder. They promote recovery, self-determination, self-advocacy, well-being and independence.

“Peer support holds the hope for people that they can find recovery, especially when people don’t hold the hope themselves,” Hope Center Executive Director Amy Foley said. “Individual successes happen all of the time. We help them see a future they could not have imagined, even six months earlier.”

Birkhimer and Mudd started their journeys as volunteers. Both participated in SOLACE, a support group for individuals and families affected by addiction. Birkhimer has been in recovery from opiate addiction since going through Hamilton County Drug Court on a heroin charge in 2009.

“Rhonda and Kristy came to me and said that things are not working in our community,” Foley said. “Their experience has earned them respect. They’re a powerful voice for what’s working and what’s not working, and how we can change what’s not working.”

Birkhimer added: “Amy heard about the holes in the system and connected the dots. We wanted to help people when they reached out for help.”

Foley, Birkhimer and Mudd embarked on a year-long journey evaluating access to good resources ranging from treatment centers, to food pantries to housing to sober support to Medicaid.

“We learned that the recovery and mental health system is overwhelmed and you can’t get treatment on demand unless you’re super rich,” Foley said. “People expect an immediate response when they decide to get clean, but resources are finite.”

Birkhimer said people would detox in jail, only to use again, OD and even die.

“They get out of jail and don’t know what to do,” she said. “They didn’t realize they could get Medicaid and treatment.”

Foley added: “They need a safe plan. They need to be deliberate.”

Now, while still incarcerated, inmates sign up for Medicaid and undergo assessment for treatment. They make the connections with people and resources who will help them maintain a healthy lifestyle for years to come, one day at a time.

Birkhimer takes people to 12-step meetings and other support groups and gets them started building a sober support network. She helps them tap into family resources and other supports.

“Recovery coaches meet people wherever they are – in jail, in the court room, even in tents in the woods,” Birkhimer said. “We go to the client and we get connected. At jail, we find out if they want to stay sober and we find support for them.”

Birkhimer appreciates the continuing education gained at conferences and seminars on topics such as trauma resiliency. She found the two-day annual Ohio Opiate and Other Drug Conference particularly helpful.

“We’re building up resources so we can do a lot to help people,” Birkhimer said. “Things are always changing. The first year, they didn’t talk about meth at all. Last year, they talked about it a lot.”

Birkhimer says she gets a high from helping others recover.

“The feeling is amazing,” she said. “It has fueled us. This is exceptional for my recovery, and they pay me for it. It makes me humble and grateful every day. It keeps me remembering how easily I could go back to it.”

Birkhimer, herself, has come a long way. When she moved back to Clermont County in 2014 she was on disability with no kids. She had suffered severe strokes back in 2002 due to her unhealthy lifestyle.

Now, she’s got a career, is raising her sister’s two teenagers, and is energized by the difference she gets to make in the lives of others.

“If you just keep doing the next right thing, good things happen,” she said.