Last year, Plainfield resident Chris Skinner was addicted to heroin and headed down a dangerous road. Today, he is sober and has a new life filled with promise. He gives much of the credit to the Phoenix Rising CrossFit program and to the staff at Central Vermont Substance Abuse Services (CVSAS).

“I lost myself in who I was. I lost everything. I lost my family. I lost my friends. You name it, I lost it. CrossFit showed me what I was capable of,” he said.

Megan, a recovering alcoholic, who asked that her last name be withheld, agrees with Skinner. CrossFit taught her to set small goals that will lead to a lifetime of sobriety.

“If you can do 100 pushups, you probably don’t need that beer,” she said.

At the sharing session prior to last Wednesday’s workout, each of the participants was asked to say one positive thing that happened over the past week. Megan told the group, “My first thought when I was stressed wasn’t, ‘I need a drink,’ it was, ‘I need CrossFit.’”

Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, she and Skinner join 20 to 30 others, some volunteers and some, like them, recovering from a substance use disorder, at the Phoenix Rising exercise programs in Barre and Berlin.

Phoenix Rising started last December with a once weekly, Saturday afternoon exercise session at Green Mountain CrossFit in Berlin. A second session, held Wednesday evenings, was added earlier this month at the Washington County Mental Health building on Summer Street in Barre. On April 13, Phoenix Rising will bring the program to Hyde Park. The group is also planning to add a yoga program and meditation sessions.

According to Shannon Brennan, a CVSAS councilor and one of the founders of Phoenix Rising in Vermont, the expansion is a result of “overwhelmingly positive response.”

The basis for all the programs is the belief in the healing power of exercise and the power of community and peer support.

“If the opposite of addiction is connection rather than simply sobriety, then this is another empowering venue for people to connect with other people, especially others in recovery who will support and encourage them in their journey to better health, in their recovery processes, and in their lives,” said Daniel Franklin, executive director of the North Central Vermont Recovery Center and partner in Phoenix’s expansion to Hyde Park.

Brennan got the idea for Phoenix Rising seven years ago while watching CNN’s Heroes program. She felt something was missing in substance abuse service in Central Vermont but didn’t know what.

“The quality of the services provided here was excellent but I just felt something was missing,” she said.

A Heroes show that aired in 2012 gave her the answer. The show was about Scott Strode, founder of The Phoenix program in Denver, Colorado. Founded in 2006, The Phoenix nonprofit provides a path to recovery through community support and exercise including climbing, hiking, running, CrossFit, yoga, surfing and cycling.

“We have built a community of people in recovery across the country that are committed to helping individuals overcome substance use disorders by providing a nurturing atmosphere and support through the intrinsic power of physical activities,” Strode said. “By bringing The Phoenix to Vermont, we are providing an effective program to help build a safe, welcoming, nurturing and healing environment that is full of hope for people who have suffered from a substance use disorder and to those who choose to live sober.”

The Phoenix arrived in Vermont due to the collaboration between Green Mountain United Way and Green Mountain CrossFit.

“One of the most incredible things we have seen since the moment this program started is that Vermonters who are in recovery, and those who are supporting them, have a place to belong,” said Tawnya Kristen, director of Green Mountain United Way.

Phoenix Rising is run totally by volunteers; even the various exercise spaces are donated.

“We definitely have a mighty group of volunteers,” Kristen said.

“Rarely have I seen such an immediate response to a program that has directly impacted the lives of so many in such a pivotal and sustainable way, particularly around substance misuse,” Kristen said.

The programs are free but all participants must follow the rules. No one can attend any Phoenix event unless they have had 48 hours of continuous sobriety. In addition, attendees are asked to make a commitment to recovery.

Racist, sexist, homophobic or other inappropriate behavior is prohibited. At the start of each session, participants are reminded about the rules and that this is a safe place.

One thing that separates Phoenix Rising from other similar programs, Brennan said, is the participants are out in the public and proud of it. Some even wear Phoenix Rising shirts hoping that others, in similar circumstances, will ask them about the program.

“Phoenix Rising is a community for people in recovery,” Brennan said.

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