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Charlotte Recovery Program Opens New Paths to Help Fight Substance Abuse

Jess Dunson
Article Date

By Wyatt Crosher, Communications Coordinator for Student Affairs

When Jess Dunson started working with UNC Charlotte’s recovery program in 2016, she said there were two students engaged with it. Back then, it was called the Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC), a name that the program would hold onto up until last August.

But five months ago, the name was switched from the CRC to the Charlotte Recovery Program (CRP). It was a sign of the amount of growth that had occurred, both since when Dunson, former Associate Director for Collegiate Recovery, came to campus about six years ago and since the creation of the program in 2011.

“We were the first school in North Carolina to have a collegiate recovery community, and I think that is super impressive,” Dunson said. “It's our 10-year anniversary this academic year, and our program has grown leaps and bounds in the last decade.”

Dunson said the program was initially created because of one student who came forward and asked for help. The University agreed, and that one student has now turned into a community of 31 members that the CRP are currently assisting with substance use.

While she has been here for a large part of the CRP’s journey to where it is today, Dunson’s time at Charlotte goes past the recovery program’s timeline. She went to school at Charlotte for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, earning her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and her master's degree in Addictions and Mental Health Counseling.

In her time as a student, Dunson said she worked for the Students Obtaining Success (SOS) program, where she was offered a graduate assistantship if she wanted to stay at the University.

“It truly fell into place,” Dunson said. “I took a whole week off between undergrad and graduate school and started back here. I joke that I just keep coming back to UNC Charlotte, but it really does feel like home."

After earning her master's degree, Dunson worked at a men’s homeless shelter through Mecklenburg County. She was there for four years until she learned about the collegiate recovery position back at Charlotte.

“A professor from here reached out and said 'Jess, this job has your name written all over it,'” Dunson said. “If I'm honest, I had no idea that collegiate recovery existed until that moment. So I dug in, I looked into it and ended up applying.”

During her interview, Dunson said that she had to meet the expectations of not only who she would be working under, but also of who she would be working with.

“They had students interview me. I came back for a second-day interview, and the students put me through it to make sure that I was going to be supportive of them,” she said. “One of the now-alumni literally said, 'Are you going to show up for the students?' And I said 'yes, yes I am.' I will never forget that moment."

When the Collegiate Recovery Community moved to the Charlotte Recovery Program in August, with it came changes to what the program is able to do. For starters, Dunson said the CRP name made it more clear what the program will continue to provide for its students, which includes things like the ability to give out scholarships through ongoing fundraising efforts.

But with the CRP also came new possibilities for the types of models that the University can provide to students going down the road to recovery. This change is something Dunson believes will be beneficial for the program moving forward.

“Historically, we have always been an abstinence-based program. That means students within our program did not use substances in any capacity,” Dunson said. “We are now considered an all-pathways-to-recovery model for students who are interested in changing their relationship with substances. That can look like an abstinence pathway, or it could look like harm reduction, natural recovery or holistic recovery. There are so many different pathways that individuals can go on.

"It feels very empowering for students to be able to choose the pathway that feels most connected to them, most safe for them, most doable for them and most successful for them versus being told you have to do recovery in this certain way."

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Beau Dooley, Director of the Center for Wellness Promotion

The CRP has already seen the impact of the change, according to Beau Dooley, Director of the Center for Wellness Promotion. He said that the program went from five or six students this summer to the record 31 members it currently holds.

“That's the largest increase in membership we've ever seen over that short of a period of time, and I think a lot of it has to do with the shift in the model,” Dooley said. “Students talk. They share with each other the successes and opportunities they have. I think some of the conversations Jess and I are having now involve what the maximum capacity of students is that we can support. We've had the conversation before, but now we're starting to really consider 'Wow, if this trend continues, what does that look like?' And that's a good problem to have."

Dunson said that this move to the all-pathways model has allowed for a more diverse group of students who are looking to join.

“Our makeup right now with students is that 30 percent of them are practicing a risk-modification model with their substance use, and about 70 percent are in an abstinence-based model,” she said. "The access to different students of different backgrounds and identities, it feels much more open and inviting to have different pathways and accessibility, and to have that level of support and community.”

While Dunson is quick to call UNC Charlotte home, after six years of building the CRP to where it is today, she departed from the University in early January 2022. She said the move is for personal reasons, and that she will always love Charlotte and the program that has helped students reach a cumulative GPA of 3.4 and had more than 30 members graduate, all while working hard to maintain their recovery.

Dunson is proud of her time with Charlotte and the CRP, but said that, at the end of the day, it was the people she was assisting that deserve all the recognition for their respective accomplishments.

“Being able to build this program back up from the roots that were already established when I came in, to watch it flourish and grow, has been one of the largest miracles in my life,” Dunson said. “Seeing the students succeed, come together, hold each other accountable, it's been amazing to sit back and watch that. I think I've had a hand in that, but I think that the credit really goes to the students."

Dooley said that the CRP will continue with the same goals and ideas that it has under Dunson, regardless of who comes in to fill her shoes.

"The vision toward the Charlotte Recovery Program is something that Jess and I have been talking about for a long time. Jess and the rest of her team made the plan. The model is something that we're going to hold,” he said. “We are in the process of conducting a search to hire a new Associate Director for Recovery within the Center for Wellness Promotion, and whenever that person comes on board, that professional will certainly bring new experiences and different attributes to the program, but the model that we've created is going to remain the model that we move forward with."

That model has changed in the 10 years that Charlotte has had some form of recovery program. It started with students who wanted assistance, and a decade later it has turned into a program open to multiple pathways working toward the same goal to help the Charlotte community on the whole.

The word “community,” while no longer in the CRP’s acronym, is still a major part in everything that it has done for the past 10 years, and what it continues to do to this day.

“Before we transitioned to the Charlotte Recovery Program, I've been told I sound like a broken record because I always said that the second 'C' is the most essential element, that community,” Dooley said. “It's that peer-to-peer support that really is the special sauce, the magic that makes it happen. And with Jess and I and the rest of the team, we are here to structure all of that support and make sure that this program is sustainable."

Learn more about the Charlotte Recovery Program here.