OGDEN — They’re not clinicians or counselors. Charli Salas and T. Zachariah Rasmussen are recovery peer coaches, working to help people with similar drug addiction histories overcome their challenges.
“We have lived experiences,” said Salas, 40, lead peer coach at Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness’s Ogden office.
“We have colorful pasts, but we overcame our addictions and are trying to stand as a beacon of hope for others.”
Salas said she got addicted to Oxycontin, then heroin.
“Then I became a criminal,” she said.
She committed burglary, worked as an escort, got arrested for forgery.
Then she lost a sister to suicide three years ago. The tragedy sparked her to try to climb out of her own unpleasant trajectory.
She found the USARA program in Salt Lake City, got into recovery and volunteered for the group.
USARA opened its Ogden office in 2019, and she’s now the lead coach.
Rasmussen, 43, came from a poor, broken home and began drinking beer and smoking cigarettes at age 7.
Eventually, he found methamphetamine and “it almost destroyed my life,” he said.
He spent time in the Weber County Jail and prison for theft and burglary.
Rasmussen stayed clean for nine years “and slowly got my life back.”
Then he slipped again into addiction.
“I lost my marriage, lost my house. I was homeless, slept in parks.”
He realized he was “not going to last forever” in that condition and sought help.
His path, too, led to USARA.
“I decided I needed to be good, to heal my soul,” he said. “My heart hurt.”
Salas and Rasmussen are full-time employees, the front line in USARA’s effort to provide a network of resources to other addicts in Ogden.
The coaching services are free.
They have gained praise from the senior leadership of USARA in Salt Lake City, some of them also in long-term recovery from addiction.
Mark Morgan, a USARA program manager, said Salas and Rasmussen are having success reaching clients and connecting them with recovery services.
USARA doesn’t counsel or treat. Its role is to build a web of support around a person suffering from addiction.
They explain what’s available from other entities, such as counseling, medical care, addiction treatment and other community services.
Morgan said he woke up from an overdose in a Salt Lake hospital “and I decided I don’t want to live this way.”
Mary Jo McMillen, USARA’s executive director, said the nonprofit focuses on individuals in crisis.
“There are some gaps ... people aren’t sure what to do,” McMillen said. “They need more support.”
The group’s work “is completely peer-led by coaches who have an experience of their own,” she said, adding that USARA’s mission “is to connect and inspire communities to advocate for addiction recovery.”
“We envision a Utah where everyone in recovery knows that supports are available to them,” McMillen said.
Things like private therapy, access to Medicaid or health insurance, are important, “because this is a medical condition,” she said.
Behavioral health formerly was the primary focus of serving recovering addicts.
“I would argue what they have is a brain disorder that causes decision-making that isn’t self-preserving,” McMillen said. “Their decisions are detrimental to their health and well-being.”
USARA guides clients with various pathways.
“It takes a lot of support to put that together for someone,” she said. “So many people are shamed from themselves and from others.”
Salas said hope is one of the coaches’ bywords.
“Hopeless is not an option for us,” she said.
Addiction is “rampant” in the Ogden area, Salas said.
More than 10 Utahns die every week from an overdose, according to the nonprofit group Utah Naloxone.
The National Institute for Drug Abuse said 437 Utahns died of opioid overdose in 2018.
The Utah Department of Health said the Ogden area is a “hot spot” for overdoses.
“Many people have burned bridges, but many have come a long way from the stigma, from the feeling of being a bad person,” Salas said. “Now it’s, you just need help.”