MEADOWVIEW, Va. — A small town’s answer to the opioid crisis is making a difference in the lives of Southwest Virginia residents, some of whom are calling a newly formed recovery group a “godsend” for their community.

“It’s helped me a lot. That’s why I don’t miss any meetings,” said Emily Schuler, who started attending Recovery at Meadowview three months ago after trying other addiction programs in the region.

“I like being involved in these types of groups because it helps me to stay sober,” said Schuler, who was charged with possession of methamphetamine in April.

“I went to jail, and part of my release was to attend counseling services when I got out. I’ve been totally sober for four months.”

Schuler is among more than a dozen men and women who attend the weekly recovery group, which meets from 6 to 8 p.m. every Tuesday at Woodland Hills Christian Church’s new campus on Lindell Road.

Charlie Lowdermilk, the group’s lead facilitator, and Sonny Wright, co-facilitator, started building the ministry program last spring after realizing there weren’t many faith-based recovery programs between Bristol and Marion.

“I don’t think it’s too extreme to say that there is a drug epidemic going around,” said Lowdermilk. “It’s not just Washington County, it’s everywhere.

“We have a deep burden in our hearts for lifting up people and giving them hope.”

The recovery program, a ministry of Woodland Hills Christian Church, is a nonresidential group ministry, offering biblical solutions to people who are imprisoned by life-controlling struggles, including drugs and alcohol abuse; behavior issues like gambling, pornography and anger; and codependent and unhealthy relationships.

“Everyone is affected in some way by alcohol and drug abuse, and we want to help that problem in our community and the surrounding areas,” said Roger Phelps, discipleship pastor at Woodland Hills Christian Church in Abingdon, where Phelps is forming another ministry recovery program at the Abingdon church located on Elementary Drive.

“The majority of people who need recovery won’t go to a residential program. That’s why these groups in churches are so valuable,” said Phelps.

Woodland Hills Christian Church uses the Living Free curriculum, a Christ-centered approach for helping people who are caught in the bondage of addictions related to substance, behavior or relationships. Other Living Free programs operate in Southwest Virginia locations, including Grundy, Castlewood, Richlands, Southwest Virginia Regional Jail, Sullivan County Jail and Bristol City Jail.

The Abingdon church will provide a free training session for anyone who wants to become a program facilitator for the recovery program on Saturday, Jan. 19, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Mark Mitchell, who has led both community and jail outreach programs, will lead the training session with a goal of helping to develop spiritual, family and community leaders.

Schuler plans to attend the training session so that she can become a group facilitator. “I want to dedicate my life to working with addicts. I’m comfortable with people like that because I’m one of them. I feel uncomfortable talking to people who don’t understand because they judge you,” she said.

A common thread

Each member of the recovery group shares a common thread, even the people who facilitate the meetings.

“No one understands an addict like an addict,” said Phelps. “I’ll be clean for 33 years in March.

“I’m not proud of my background, but it’s who I am,” said Phelps, who dealt with a cocaine addiction. “I want to help people who are struggling the way I struggled.”

Although Lowdermilk has never struggled with substance abuse, he knows the pain of addiction suffered by a family member.

“Everyone is affected somehow,” said Lowdermilk, whose son is a recovering drug user. “Our group is also for concerned persons — family members and friends who have a loved one experiencing life-controlling problems.”

Wright said he can relate to the group members because he also was a drug addict for as many as 40 years, most of the time while driving a tractor-trailer across the country.

“My life-controlling problem has always been drugs, and my drug of choice was meth.”

Wright started using drugs at age 17, a habit that landed him at Brushy Mountain Prison in Tennessee for seven years. He learned to drive a tractor-trailer truck when he was released from jail at age 25, but drugs still consumed his life. He went back to jail for three more years, where he met Mitchell, who introduced him to the Living Free program.

“Not only did Jesus save me, but He showed me that I have people who care.”

Schuler said it’s changed the way she copes with life, too.

“It’s brought me closer to God. I used to turn to drugs instead of trying to face them on my own and looking to God for help,” she said.

“I’ve since crossed paths with people who have offered drugs to me. I used to never say no to them, but not this time. I don’t want it. I don’t want my daughter growing up in that kind of atmosphere.”

Living Free curriculum

“Nationwide, the average statistic shows that for recovery programs that don’t focus on Jesus Christ, the success rate is 17 percent. When we include Jesus Christ as the healer, the success rate goes to 84 percent,” said Phelps.

Phelps explained that Living Free ministry gives each recovery group the freedom to name its own group. “While Living Free is a global, international program, our recovery program may not be as widely known because individual groups carry different names.”

The group format includes an opening prayer, food and fellowship, worship in songs, devotion and time devoted to group sharing.

“Even though we have a book to follow, we depend on the Holy Spirit to lead us,” said Wright. “You don’t have to have a religious background or be saved. That’s what this program is for — to bring you to the Lord,” said Wright.

“We’re nondenominational, but we focus on the Lord,” added Lowdermilk.

“No one is looking down their noses at them. There’s no judgment going on here. We want to let people know that we are here to change the way they live their lives,” he said.

Five components of recovery

Lowdermilk said the five components of recovery start with the decision to get serious about recovery.

“I was actually really dead set on staying sober, but I wasn’t 100 percent in doing it at first,” said Schuler.

The second component is to surround yourself with people who are serious about your life-change and who will encourage you.

“My dad, Dennis Schuler, has taken me to every substance abuse class since I’ve been out of jail. My parents said they will do anything to help me if I really want to stay sober,” said Schuler.

According to Lowdermilk, people who attend recovery group meetings hold themselves accountable to others who can evaluate their progress and help them assume responsibility for their conduct. They learn about boundaries — people they must not see and places they must not go — to help them make better decisions and stay on track to recovery.

“And, finally, it’s important to stay consistent,” he said. “Recovery and discipleship are for a lifetime.”

Recovery at Meadowview meetings are free and open to the public. To learn more, call 276-206-3699 or 276-695-9371, or follow both Woodland Hills Christian Church and Recovery at Meadowview on Facebook.

Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at news@washconews.com.

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