The Welcoming Place at The Brattleboro Retreat. A Pinprick of Light
By Chad Simmons
In early December, I had the opportunity to see Bernadette Gleeson of BOA Communications speak in Keene, New Hampshire. She spoke about the need to dramatically shift how we think about and approach addiction, treatment, and recovery.
She spoke about early childhood trauma and other contributing factors to Substance Use Disorder. But what struck me the most was her impassioned call for all of us to be “a pinprick of light amongst the darkness.”
The thinking is that addiction breeds in isolation and darkness. Recovery is lifelong and so many people and systems must “show up” and provide something to recover towards. The opiate crisis in Vermont, and the rest of the country, is a public health crisis that, Bernadette exclaims, means we all need to be a pinprick of light.
This blog post is about one particular pinprick of light and the people that make it. It’s also about how that small stream of light connects with others…One of many important steps to removing barriers to long-term recovery, providing safe, nurturing, stimulating opportunities for children and promoting a robust system of support for all families.
Impact of Opiates On Children, Families and Supports
First, let me lay out some context. In December, Building Bright Futures (BBF) released the Substance Use & Opiate Task Force Report and 2017 Recommendations, detailing the impact of opiates on Vermont families and a set of recommendations for the state and communities to pursue. The report states, “there is evidence of a strong correlation between opioid addiction and traumatic experiences, particularly early childhood adversity…The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study has demonstrated a strong relationship between adverse childhood experiences and a variety of negative health outcomes including smoking, alcohol use, and harmful drug use. Research indicates that the most effective way to prevent and treat opioid addiction is to begin by understanding its origin in adverse childhood experiences.”1
The opiate crisis is deeply felt across Vermont, but is having a particularly crushing impact on our child welfare system. Between 2012 and 2016, the statewide rate of Vermont children under age nine entering into the Department of Children & Families (DCF) custody nearly doubled. In the Brattleboro Agency of Human Services (AHS) district, the rate nearly tripled (from 11 out of every 1,000 children under age nine in 2012 to 30 out of every 1,000 children under age nine in 2016).2 Vermont’s Family Services Division tracks the family risk factors identified by reporters when they called the Child Protection Line including domestic violence, financial stress, mental health issues, and substance use disorder. Between 2010 and 2015, the most frequent risk factor identified by reporters was substance use disorder.3
We tend to think of adult treatment programs only serving adults. But when you look at who needs access to treatment, in many instances, it’s families. “Approximately 70% of women entering substance use treatment services have children.” The first recommendation of the report is improved “systems integration and care collaboration across adult and child systems.”4 Enter, The Welcoming Place at the Brattleboro Retreat.
“We actually welcome families here, not just children. It’s really about the family,” says Kay Curtis, Lead Teacher for The Welcoming Place. Kay is both a tireless advocate for families and a veteran early educator.
Kelsey Abramson is the Assistant Teacher and exudes a calm, nurturing demeanor as she welcomes me inside. Walking through the front door of The Welcoming Place, you enter a large, bright gym, adorned with a colorful sign welcoming parents and children. A variety of balls sit in the corner, waiting to be bounced, rolled, and kicked. Then, through a small door, we enter the classroom; an open, peaceful space with numerous play and learning stations for children. The walls are decorated with art, photos, and neatly organized shelves.
The Welcoming Place is a model program offering free childcare to adults receiving treatment for opioid addiction as part of the HUB program at the Brattleboro Retreat. It’s open from 5:45-10:45 am, seven-days a week and is available to children birth to age 12. In total, there are three teachers and two subs. The program provides a stimulating environment to children with opportunities to develop their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive abilities.
When I ask Kay and Kelsey to describe a morning with the kiddos, they are full of enthusiasm about the guided play-based environment they’ve created.
“Because we are Reggio inspired, we have a lot of things out…They walk through the door and they choose. We never really tell the children what to do. Even the small baby who can [only] ‘army crawl’: he’ll either choose to come over and play with those ones at his level or the firehouse or the baby heads,” says Kay.
Kelsey adds “It’s a lot of child inspired free-play. If they change their minds and they want to do something else, that’s what we’re going to do. It’s nice to have both rooms to go back and forth and have the option.”
Kay and Kelsey describe the pictures of the children on the wall as daily “prompts” as they arrive. It’s grounding and comforting, because regardless of what’s happening outside the doors, inside The Welcoming Place, kids can be kids.
After just a few minutes of conversation with the early educators, it’s incredibly clear providing a nurturing, stimulating place for children was only part of the equation. Showing up for parents is a key attribute of The Welcoming Place.
“I worked with a lot of families and I’ve never seen anything like this…They’ve been traumatized. And often when you hear enough of these stories, they happened when they were young children,” Kay shares, in a deeply reflective voice. The week of my visit, they had already found a carseat for one family, and a stroller for another, ensuring safe transport from home to the Retreat and back. Kelsey adds “The donations [for families] have been really important.”
Kay and Kelsey then share with me a number of stories…A trip to the emergency room; finding reliable transportation; the father of a parent passing after 18 months of sobriety; doing whatever it takes to keep custody of a child. You don’t have to look too hard to see the fantastic strength, love, and fierce determination of the parents. All the while, looms the fear of another catastrophe.
When I ask how they approach working with families, Kay quickly responds “It’s been with humor and consistently being calm. We have no anxiousness from us. This is a safe place.” They also talk about the networking and relationship building amongst parents. While Kay and Kelsey can act as “a reliable adult listener to talk to about their children’s developmental progress,” parents also lean on each other for support. For many, this is a reminder or even new found encouragement, that they’ve got this…that being a sober parent is not only possible, but in fact is already occurring among their peers.
When I ask Tori Kelliher, Manager of Mulberry Bush Independent School and Administer of The Welcoming Place, what does success look like, she describes a partnership between parents, the HUB program, and The Welcoming Place to support healthy child development and more people in long-term recovery. She wants to meet the needs of as many people as possible to access programing.
Kay adds “We consider our mission successful when a parent is able to recover and go back into the world to find employment. We can help parents find a childcare program that operates full day and is a match for their new lives.” Kay, Kelsey, and Tori all talk about the distinct need for a “bridging” program, one that can attend to both the child and adult needs, in an integrated and multi-generational approach.
The BBF Substance Use Task Force report and recommendations place great emphasis on multi-generational, family centered, and integrated supports and services. In an Op-Ed touting the significance of this model program, Louis Josephson, President & CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat shares: “Research tells us that children who have access to positive supports and opportunities to grow and learn will enjoy better health later in life. This means we are twice blessed to know that this new program will not only allow parents to remain in treatment and maintain a strong recovery, but will also contribute to positive health outcomes for young people farther down the path of life.”
How One Pinprick Becomes Many
In an article5 describing the grand opening and origin of The Welcoming Place, Jessica Greene of Health Care & Rehabilitation Services and It Takes a Village shares the story of a mother coming to her with a problem: Where can she confidently and safely bring her child while receiving treatment? That one question led to a small team, a group of funders, and Retreat staff opening the program’s doors in August of 2017. But The Welcoming Place is only one pinprick of light. We need a legion of people, agencies and companies to make some light.
There’s a tendency when talking about public health crisises to quickly turn to “the answer.” Meaning, “if we only did this or if we put more money here, problem solved.” Reality has other things in store for us.
The Netflix film Heroin(e)6 follows three women and their respective roles in addressing the opiate crisis in Huntington, West Virginia. At one point in the film, Fire Chief Jan Rader laments, “I see this as a problem that has the potential to bankrupt the country.” Yet, what’s interesting and hopeful about the film is the potential for connecting our responses in a human, integrated, and strength-based way. In the film, it’s connecting Narcan distribution to first responders, a compassionate and responsive drug court system, and street outreach.
What if, instead of looking at singular, isolated solutions, we instead looked at an interconnected, complex web of support?
Recently, the regional Building Bright Futures council convened The Welcoming Place partners to discuss next steps. Specifically, how to improve collaboration and integration with community partners and promote The Welcoming Place as a reliable option for parents seeking treatment. Our vision is that The Welcoming Place is more visible and connected to other supports and services, ensuring all families have what they need to thrive in long-term recovery.
1 Building Bright Futures. (2017). Substance use and opiate task force: Report and 2017 recommendations. Retrieved from http://buildingbrightfutures.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BBF-Substance-Use-Task-Force_Report-and-Recommendations-2.pdf.
2 Vermont Insights. (2017). Point-in-time count and rate of children and youth in the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) custody. Retrieved from
3 Vermont Department for Children and Families. (2017). Annual report on outcomes for Vermonters, January 2017. Retrieved from http://dcf.vermont.gov/sites/dcf/files/DCF/budget/DCF-Outcomes.pdf.
4 Building Bright Futures. (2017). Substance use and opiate task force: Report and 2017 recommendations. Retrieved from http://buildingbrightfutures.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BBF-Substance-Use-Task-Force_Report-and-Recommendations-2.pdf.
5 VT Digger. (2017). Opioid epidemic prompts free child care in Brattleboro. Retrieved from https://vtdigger.org/2017/08/20/opioid-epidemic-prompts-free-child-care-brattleboro/.
6 Sheldon, E.M. (2017). Heroin(e). [Motion picture]. United States: Netflix.