July 13, 2016 | Stories & Profiles

Partner Profile: Albany Treatment & Recovery March

Every September, hundreds of people march through some of Albany, New York’s worst, most crime-infested neighborhoods, carrying colorful banners and exchanging words with city residents who emerge from their homes and apartments, curious what the chanting is all about.

While that description may conjure up images of riots and protests in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, the reality in Albany is far different. The chants are proud and positive instead of angry, and the local police are participating in the march rather than trying to subdue it. This is what the annual Albany Treatment and Recovery March looks like, and it’s been happening now for 26 years. 

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March participants create banners every year to represent various treatment agencies.

The Treatment Works March began in 1991, and was originally spearheaded by Denis Foley of Albany County Stop DWI and first hosted by Whitney M. Young Health Center (F.A.C.T.S.) Program.

“We’ve always been very pro-active in the community,” explains Chief Kerry Thompson from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, which administers the Stop DWI Program. “We’ve gone into schools, we’ve run a mobile education and awareness bus.” While they worked the prevention and enforcement angles, and local doctors and counselors offered substance use treatment, leaders of both communities realized there was a missing piece: promoting recovery.

When asked about the march’s mission, everyone involved says exactly the same thing: “To show the world that treatment works.” But to those in the throes of addiction, that definitely isn’t obvious. According to Joyce Love, a halfway house supervisor with St. Peter’s Addiction Recovery Center, who has helped put on the march for the last 2 decades: “You’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to access the help that is out there.”

Jennifer Vitkus, the Community Education Program Director at the Addictions Care Center of Albany, is chairing this year’s march committee. “This truly is a grassroots effort. It’s the product of five different treatment organizations, two police departments, the Albany Department of Mental Health, and a ton of dedicated volunteers.”

The host agency rotates from year to year, she explains, and the march route varies accordingly. There is always an awards ceremony held at the host agency before the march to recognize those who have achieved milestones in their sobriety, as well as exceptional treatment providers and community leaders. The march ends at a local park, where everyone gathers for music and a barbecue, a talent show, and general catching-up.

The march has grown by leaps and bounds. Last year, there were more than 300 participants. More and more businesses also join the event each year, either by chipping in to fund the barbecue, or providing gift certificates for contest prizes. “Every year, we have new businesses getting involved, because they see a need for it,” says Vitkus.

Love says the other great thing about this march is that it brings treatment and law enforcement together. “The sheriff, police departments, judges, lawyers – we see a lot of them at the march. I think there is a growing realization that, sure, you can lock someone up who has a drug problem – but all that does is put a hold on the addiction. To really help these people, law enforcement and treatment providers have to work together.” 

Love has seen a lot of happy and unexpected reunions at the event. “Treatment alumni come back, 5 or 10 years after getting sober, and they’ll often run into friends at the march who are also in recovery, who maybe they didn’t realize had turned their lives around.”

The event gives treatment-program graduates an opportunity to share their pride in their recovery, she says. “They’re happy to finally belong to something that’s positive. They know the world has seen them at their worst – now, in this march, they get to show themselves at their best.”

Says Chief Thompson: “I used to be assigned to a street crimes unit, so I’ve seen a lot of drug deals, prostitution, all of the problems that come from addiction. I remember there was a young woman we had arrested probably 20 times. She was involved in prostitution, she was homeless, she had no job, no car, no driver’s license. Finally she came to us and said she wanted help to escape her addiction. Now she participates in the march every year. She owns a home, she has a great job, and every year she loves telling people that, hey, I was at rock bottom myself at one point, but it’s possible to bring yourself back.” 

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This year's Treatment & Recovery March is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 15. For more information, check out the event Save the Date Flyer