DULUTH — Beth Elstad works in a small office on the fourth floor of the Wells Fargo building, the project manager and only employee of an agency formed this year with a timely and challenging mission.

Recovery Alliance Duluth, formed in February with backing from The Victory Fund, seeks to provide peer support for people recovering from substance abuse disorder.

“There’s robust research that supports peer-to-peer support services and the positive outcomes,” Elstad said. “The outcomes are greater.”

The idea, said Elstad, 52, is that people in recovery often respond better with encouragement from someone who is further along on the same journey.

The Twin Cities has such a program, called Minnesota Recovery Connection, said Gary Olson, who is on The Victory Fund board and has been heavily involved in setting up the Duluth program. So does Rochester, where it’s called Recovery Is Happening.

Elstad, who is herself in recovery and has been sober for 23 years, said she was attending an academy for recovery coaches in the Twin Cities in April 2018 and realized that Duluth had no similar agency.

It has “mutual aid” groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and it has treatment programs. Elstad, who benefited from AA in her early years of recovery, said she’s grateful for such programs.

But for some people, such programs don’t work, or they’re not enough, she said.

“This is going to sound corny, but if you think about the food we eat, some people love vegetables and some people hate vegetables,” Elstad said. “Well, we have a choice. And this is about adding another choice. And the difference is that this is very self-directed peer-recovery support.”

Olson noted that about 80 percent of people with addiction never get treatment. “So they either get well on their own, or they don’t get well at all.”

Both Olson and Elstad were on the board of The Victory Fund, a nonprofit committed to addressing chronic health issues in northeastern Minnesota. The fund’s board has chosen to concentrate on two areas, said Katherine Heimbach, its executive director. One is dementia, and the other — under the label Ovation — is on reversing the cycle of addiction.

As the evidence was presented to them, she and the board became sold on the need for a peer-to-peer recovery effort in the region, Heimbach said.

Elstad, who stepped off the board, was asked to lead the effort with startup funding from The Victory Fund, which invested $85,000, Heimbach said. The fund won’t be able to continue to offer support at that level, she said, but Recovery Alliance Duluth is in the process of incorporating as a nonprofit and will be able to seek grant funding.

Brian Crawford's army hat is held by his brother and mother in Hermantown on Wednesday, Aug. 21. Brian died by suicide six years ago while in recovery from substance abuse, and now his family is working to find more options for people to heal. Ellen Schmidt/eschmidt@duluthnews.com
Brian Crawford's army hat is held by his brother and mother in Hermantown on Wednesday, Aug. 21. Brian died by suicide six years ago while in recovery from substance abuse, and now his family is working to find more options for people to heal. Ellen Schmidt/eschmidt@duluthnews.com

The primary mission for Recovery Alliance Duluth, Heimbach said, is to develop a curriculum and provide training for people wanting to offer peer recovery support. Individuals could go on to become certified as peer recovery supporters, Elstad said. That means they or their employer could be reimbursed by Medicaid for their services. But some people are prevented from working in programs funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services because of their background, she said.

“Because they have a felony,” Heimbach elaborated. “And that’s hardly a peer, then. We’re eliminating a lot of peers.”

So individuals could receive the training and serve in a volunteer capacity, Elstad said.

Although Elstad has been certified, money isn’t the driving force for her, Elstad said.

“This is something that I was doing on my own,” she said. “This is legacy-leaving work. And it honors my son, truth be told, in a way that …”

Elstad paused, struggling to control her emotions.

“I want to honor his life and his resilience,” she finished.

Elstad’s sons, Bryan Crawford and Benjamin Crawford, both struggled with alcohol addiction, and both fought back. Today, Benjamin is a dad, has a full-time job and is a leader in Celebrate Recovery, a Christian recovery program.

Bryan’s journey took him through the South St. Louis County DWI Court led by Judge Shaun Floerke. It made a strong impression on both Bryan and his mom.

“I really got to know Judge Floerke, and I got to see how he interacted with folks that come through that DWI court,” Elstad said. “It was transformative for my son.”

But Bryan also struggled with mental health issues. Nearly six years ago, when he was 28, Bryan lost his battle, taking his own life. That doesn’t take away from his mother’s admiration for her son’s ability to overcome substance abuse.

“(It’s) important to acknowledge that he was in recovery and died by suicide,” Elstad said. “So we’re dealing with something that’s really powerful here, and it’s important that people understand the gravity of substance use disorder. It’s a lifetime deal.”

Elstad’s own battle began early in life. She remembers taking her first drink when she was 12. At the time, it gave her a feeling of relief and a sense of calm, she said. For years, she continued to pursue that feeling, but it became, she said, like living in prison. She was in a chaotic marriage with two sons and wanted something better for them, she said.

In 1997, when the boys were 11 and 9, she divorced.

Since then, Elstad has remarried. Living in Hermantown with her husband of 23 years, she has a “fabulous husband, and we have a wonderful life,” she said.

Still, in the early phases of recovery she could have benefited from peer support, Elstad said, and she believes Bryan could have benefited as well.

Olson, who retired in June 2018 as director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, is a longtime advocate of such an approach.

“The solution that has been in my mind for years is to have really an army of foot soldiers, of people who have been through it … to kind of help hold people’s hands, get them the help they need, and then support them during and after treatment,” he said.

Elstad already is serving as one of those foot soldiers, often receiving calls at all hours from people she’s helping through recovery. It’s her way, she said, of remembering Bryan.

“This is my way of honoring that experience and being there for the other people, the other Bryans,” she said. “There are a lot of Bryans in this world.”

Get involved

Recovery Walk 2019, sponsored by Recovery Alliance Duluth and The Victory Fund, will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. at Leif Erikson Park, 1301 London Road. The event, intended to “show the community that recovery is real,” will feature guest speakers, food, entertainment and a short walk for recovery. It is not a fundraiser.

Learn more about Recovery Alliance Duluth and the Recovery Walk at recoveryallianceduluth.org.