1. Szulecki, Diane Editor


Nancy Labov's nonprofit gives young adults in recovery a platform at local schools.


Article Content

As a nursing student, Nancy Labov often heard the word "empathy" used in her classes. But it wasn't until she started a clinical rotation on a rehabilitation unit that she truly grasped its meaning. On the rehab unit, "I could really relate to the patients," she says. "I felt the empathy." Alcoholism ran in her family, so she understood some of the struggles associated with addiction. And she was facing the same problem herself-but, chalking her behavior up to being "a partier," she hadn't yet come to terms with it. "I didn't identify myself as having an addiction. I was in complete denial at that point."

Figure. Nancy Labov,... - Click to enlarge in new window Nancy Labov, RN, CADC. Photos courtesy of Nancy Labov.

A few years later, in her mid-20s, Labov got sober through a 12-step program and has maintained her sobriety for three decades. She's also remained an active member of the recovery community-a connection she leveraged alongside her nursing experience to found the nonprofit Alumni in Recovery (AIR) in 2014. Through the New Jersey-based organization, young adults in recovery give talks at schools in the communities they grew up in, using a peer-to-peer approach to teach students about addiction (see



Labov's rotation on the rehab unit cemented her career mission: to help patients struggling with addiction. Heeding the advice of her instructors, she first gained nursing experience in other areas, working on a neurology unit in Boston and on a psychiatric unit in New York City. Eventually she seized a chance to practice nursing in the addiction field, taking a job working with rehab patients at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus, New Jersey. She went on to spend years in the specialty, working on rehab and detox units across the country and earning a certification in alcohol and drug counseling along the way.


As Labov worked to cultivate her career and make local connections, she was also planting the seeds for AIR. Its premise came to her while working at Spring House, a halfway house for women on the grounds of the Bergen New Bridge Medical Center. One day, she accompanied two house residents to a high school where they had been invited to talk about their experiences with addiction. As she watched the young women speak, Labov noticed that the audience was captivated. "I was so moved by the power in that room-watching these students just listening to the girls talk. I said, 'We've got to do more of this.'"


Labov took some time to brainstorm how to bring speakers in recovery into schools on a larger scale. Initially, she focused her efforts on facilitating more speaking engagements for the Spring House residents. But then Labov's gym buddy, a young woman who was also in recovery, mentioned during a workout that that she, too, wanted to tell students her story.


At that moment, Labov realized she could bridge her connections within the local recovery community to bring her idea to fruition. "I said, 'Wait a minute, I can start something where we bring young people in recovery back to schools they're familiar with.'"


Labov got to work creating guidelines for the fledgling volunteer organization. She recruited young adults who were interested in speaking at schools-hosting them for planning dinners at her home-and reached out to school administrators. Within a month, the first AIR presentation was held: Labov's workout buddy and another young man spoke to an eighth-grade class at the middle school they had both attended.



AIR currently has more than 50 active speakers. The group's efforts have gained the support of educators, parents, law enforcement, and substance abuse counselors. And, most importantly, its presentations resonate well with students, Labov says.

Figure. AIR members ... - Click to enlarge in new window AIR members speak to a health class at Lodi High School in Lodi, New Jersey.

The goal of an AIR talk is simple: to show teens a local, young, and thereby relatable face of recovery, and to open up a conversation about addiction, tackling the stigma. Labov believes that as schools grapple with how to teach students about the dangers of substance abuse-particularly in light of the opioid epidemic-AIR offers a solution. "How do we reach these kids? It's easy," she says. "Just open the doors to somebody who has walked in their shoes."


AIR speakers, who are typically in their 20s, touch upon identification, education, and prevention in their talks. They are also careful not to lecture. Rather than telling students what to do, AIR speakers tell them their own story, pointing out that the disease of addiction does not discriminate. They aim to help students understand that they can ask for help if they are struggling with issues like anxiety or depression, which many of the speakers identify as their own catalysts for self-medication and addiction.


Labov notes that the opioid epidemic has "unfortunately and fortunately" yielded a large number of young adults in recovery. The silver lining is that many are eager to help with prevention efforts. Of the speakers in her group, Labov says, "It's a miracle they've made their way into recovery. And they make that clear when they talk." The speakers often mention that many of their friends have died-friends who not long ago walked the same halls as the students in the audience.



Thanks to the networking efforts of its members, AIR continues to expand its reach. It now has a presence in several New Jersey counties. "Volunteerism is such a basis for recovery," Labov says. "Good breeds good. It constantly grows from that."


And Labov is determined to spread the message that the group's framework can be implemented anywhere. "We created a model for any community to take and do the same," she says. "It unites so many different groups of people and connects the dots at a time when we need to become connected to provide solutions for a healthy, powerful America. It gives us an opportunity to empower these young people in recovery-to give them a platform, because they have the ability to change things."-Diane Szulecki, editor