Legacy of Recovery: Honoring the Founder

legacyThis past week Recovery Innovations, Inc. (RI) announced that its President/CEO, Eugene Johnson, is leaving the Company to pursue other opportunities. Since founding the Company in 1990, Gene and RI have created a vision of recovery recognized around the world for its focus on “what’s strong” not “what’s wrong.”

Last week, as we honored Gene’s legacy with the team in Phoenix, we recounted the story of change and development at RI that began 25 years ago and continues in 2015 and beyond.

Beginning his career in social work at Loyola University in the late 60s, Gene became a passionate civil rights advocate, participating in freedom marches on the streets of Chicago. After obtaining his M.S.W., he managed crisis services at a Chicago hospital – the setting of violent race riots following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. – where he created community alternatives to state hospitalization. In 1977, Gene relocated to Phoenix to manage the County’s public alcohol reception and detox center. Working closely with Sandra Day O’Connor, who chaired a blue ribbon citizens committee to revitalize downtown, Gene supported legislation for new treatment options for homeless individuals.

It was a humble beginning in 1990 when Gene launched META Services out of his Mesa garage, but the Company grew and became successful delivering crisis services in the East Valley. Eventually, META Services took responsibility for the Urgent Psychiatric Units in central Phoenix and the West Valley, as well as crisis mobile services under the new RBHA system and ComCare. However, by the end of its first decade, this traditional behavioral healthcare Company was shifting its focus to a new paradigm. The influence of Dan Fisher from the National Empowerment Center and RI peer leaders Lisa St. George, Marianne Long, and many others led Gene to announce META Services would become a “recovery organization.”

Recovery is a ubiquitous word in the behavioral health community today, and it is easy to forget how landmark it was when RI began employing hundreds of peers in the early 2000s. The Company created opportunities and environments that empower people to recover; built crisis facilities known for recovery, opportunity, Welcoming Environments, and “No Force First;” and generated meaningful jobs for peer support specialists. Fran Silvestri (CEO of the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership) has called these changes some of the most significant contributions to the field in the last thirty years.

In 2006, the Company changed its name to Recovery Innovations, Inc. They fielded a team of recovery trainers who have delivered consultation and support to 30 U.S. states and seven countries through the Company’s Recovery Opportunity Center. Behavioral healthcare leaders from across the country visited Phoenix for META immersions to learn about the RI approach and to see its Arizona health programs and services. Education and training became a central focus for RI, and yet, bigger changes lay ahead.

It quickly became evident to Gene that state, county, and health plan administrators for behavioral health were not content with simply receiving training and consultation from the Recovery Opportunity Center. They wanted more, so RI began to plant new programs in other states and countries. The Company has launched, on average, three to six new programs per year since 2007, and is currently in six states and Auckland, New Zealand.

In partnership with Optum Health and its Washington State leader Cheri Dolezal, RI co-created a Recovery Response Center and other key peer services in Pierce County that have become a model for integrated and recovery-oriented systems.

One of the first things Gene and I did together after I joined the team this summer was take an extended two-week road trip in which we personally visited nearly all of the more than 40 RI locations across the country. The familiar RI heart/butterfly icon greeted us at every stop, as did the colorful posters featuring the nine dimensions of wellness and steps of recovery coaching. But, it wasn’t just the consistent branding and frameworks that demonstrated Gene’s impact; it was evident in the outpouring of love and appreciation for his leadership and contribution to the personal recovery journeys of so many employees.

The latest development in the Company’s story and Gene’s legacy is the explosion of what the field knows as “crisis stabilization programs.” The original META programs have now become Recovery Response Centers, using a peer-driven recovery model and offering welcoming, non-threatening spaces such as Living Rooms and Retreats. When individuals come into one of the RI centers from the back of a patrol car and are met not with the typical questions of what problem precipitated their arrival, but an inquiry into their hopes and dreams and an exploration of how to achieve their goals, it’s revolutionary and mind-bending.

In 2014, the Company had five crisis recovery and stabilization programs, and Gene’s outreach and engagement will catapult the total to nearly a dozen by early 2016. In partnership with Optum Health, RI opened a new Recovery Pathway Evaluation and Treatment unit in Lakewood, Washington State late last year as part of a full-scale response to a state Supreme Court ruling banning the practice of psychiatric boarding.

Gene’s is a story of innovation and growth. In 2013, he was recognized by the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association with the prestigious John Beard award for outstanding contributions to the behavioral health field. Some of those highlights include:

  • A service framework and practice built on the belief that recovery is possible for everyone;
  • The creation of the discipline of peer support with one of the largest integrated peer workforces in the world (more than half of our nearly 800 employees);
  • Focus on eliminating violence within crisis services through the practice of no-force-first and healing spaces;
  • The creation of the Recovery Education Center where education is a pathway to recovery;
  • The creation of Wellness City as an alternative to outpatient services where people seeking recovery are citizens of the City with full ownership over their services in pursuit of a better life.

Together with his wife, Lori Ashcraft, Gene will be based in Nevada City, California. Gene is leaving huge shoes to fill and a decades-long legacy and history. I am honored to follow him as CEO and President. RI will continue to build on his foundation and be the voice of recovery and a force for hope and healing in the world. The need for a recovery-oriented approach in an era of increasing forced treatment, demands for cost savings, and focus on the rights of individuals, has never been greater. Thank you Gene.