Why I Run Up the Stairs at Work


Chris Budnick and Tom Bannard recording a “Tub Talk” podcast for J3, Chris’ series on the recovery movement.


Tom Bannard is a Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor, who will finish his MBA from VCU in May.  Tom wants to change the way we view substance use in America.  He is COBE’s “Emotional Guy”, and sometimes he struggles to understand big, academic, science words.

At the end of October, I started a new job at VCU split between running the Collegiate Recovery Program and serving as the Administrative Director for COBE.  It’s an awesome gig with time split between working directly with students, and engaging with an awesome group of researchers.  

As a person in long term recovery from addiction, I catch myself smiling sometimes because I know it could be very different.

I spent the first 7 years of my career working at a local organization called CARITAS, a large provider of shelter, long-term recovery support, employment support, and furniture.  

CARITAS is a scrappy organization of passionate, dedicated, and humble workers who have dedicated their lives to creating opportunities for the most vulnerable.  The staff works long hours, for low pay, with many inspired by their own lived experience with addiction or homelessness or both.  Their reward is knowing that they are doing some of the hardest, most important work in our community, and they see lives transformed on a daily basis.  It was a hard place to leave.

What drew me away was the opportunity to build robust recovery supports on a college campus, and the chance to work alongside brilliant researchers who were studying the topics most of interest to me.  Additionally, the access to the tremendous resources of a major research university was incredibly exciting, especially coming from an organization whose hands were often tied by funding necessities.  It has not been disappointing.

Still, early on in the job, before our recovery program started growing, I found myself missing the urgency, the “in your face” importance of the work I had previously done.  There had been an ingrained culture of always trying to do better for our clients.  

Recently, I was moved by the way that my friend Chris Budnick put it.  Chris has been a social worker since the early 90s spending the majority of that time working at a long term recovery program for people struggling with substance use disorders who can’t access treatment.  In short he has dedicated his entire adult life to helping the most vulnerable people in our society, but the video is an amends for the things he has left undone in his professional career.  

As strong leaders do, Chris takes more than his share of the responsibility for mistakes and for what we must do about them.  I can’t help but wonder, what if more researchers felt this same responsibility for making sure that their work would make a difference in real people’s lives?

Perhaps they wouldn’t be getting failing grades for dissemination by the Chronicle for Higher Education?  Perhaps they wouldn’t use words like dissemination?  Perhaps they would find better ways to work around (or even change?!) a system that rewards publishing papers, but does not reward scaleable applications of knowledge or meaningful community engagement.  

Likewise, we might be less inclined to make incredibly poor public policy decisions that are more based on emotion than on science (See War on Drugs).  Practitioners might have fewer amends to make because they would have better access to the most promising research.  Family members might have to bury fewer of their children because they had access to the information they needed to make decisions.

This is what excites me about COBE.  We have the opportunity – no, the mandate – to get research about health and wellness in young people into the hands of the people that really need it: young people, their families, their teachers, and the practitioners who work with them.  

At our Town Hall Meeting on Young People and Substance Use coming up April 14th and 15th, we will bring together this group of “people who normally would not mix”.  Perhaps at times, the researchers will have trouble connecting, or the audience will have trouble understanding or separating lived experience from what the research says, but we need to start somewhere, and we need to be in the same room.  

We have a lot of work to do together.