Kids Today—Young People in Recovery Turns Five Years Old!

By Keri Blakinger 12/20/15

With more than 80 chapters in 30 states, YPR has built itself from a grassroots effort to a force for good.


At a harborside hotel in Baltimore in December 2010, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration held a dialogue on recovery. SAMHSA holds a number of events and conferences every year and not all of them are memorable five years later—but this one was.  

Among the attendees were 12 like-minded young people, all in recovery and all enthusiastic about it. During the day-long event, they talked, bonded, and shared their experience, strength, and hope—and, in the process, stumbled into an important moment of clarity.

“We realized,” said Justin Luke Riley, “that, hey, we’re young and we’re in recovery and a lot of our friends aren’t making it in recovery and we seem to be the golden ticket holders, the ones who magically made it. But recovery shouldn’t be this really lucky thing where only a handful make it.” 

Hoping to change that, Riley and 11 of his peers founded Young People in Recovery.

From Grassroots to Grants

Since then, the organization has grown in leaps and bounds. Today, there are more than 80 chapters in 30 states and, though they share the same core mission, each YPR chapter brings to the table its own flavor and focus. 

Fundamentally, it’s an “advocacy and action organization,” according to YPR National Program Director Robert Ashford. “We equip young people with the tools to use their voices,” he said. Those tools can take a number of different forms; chapters do everything from peer support services to volunteering in the community to educating to job training to political advocacy. 

For the first few years, the group functioned more as an informal grassroots effort, but in 2013 they filed for articles of incorporation and got non-profit status. Now, between grants and donations and revenue, YPR boasts an operating budget approaching $2 million.

Most of the executive team is based in Denver, but YPR’s biggest membership presence is in California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. “It’s a pretty widespread organization because of some hard work and great grassroots organizing,” Ashford said. 

On top of its diverse funding sources and widespread membership, YPR has a broad understanding of recovery, including approaches that are not abstinence-based as well as those that are. 

“Far be it for us to stigmatize or shame someone for their chosen path of recovery,” said Ashford. “As an organization, our philosophy is that there are multiple pathways to recovery, so for some people that’s abstinence, but we also wholeheartedly endorse all pathways. 

“Whatever it takes for somebody to engage in a higher quality of life.” 

Don’t Stop Believing

“At the end of the day, for me, what we really do is we believe in people that a lot of other people have given up on,” said Riley, who is now YPR’s president and CEO.

Riley understands believing in people on a personal level; he believed in himself enough to get sober back in 2007. 

The 27-year-old’s struggle with addiction took root in third grade, when he started experimenting with pills to fall asleep. In high school, he got good grades and was captain of the tennis team—but then it all fell apart. Riley ended up homeless, before, with the help of another young person, he decided to get sober. 

“I was so fortunate to meet another young person in recovery who gave me a message of empowerment and hope,” Riley said, “and from that moment forward it’s just never been the same.” 

That was in November 2007, and since then he has worked in public relations, been a pastor, done consulting work, managed a treatment center and graduated cum laude from the University of Colorado at Denver. 

In 2011, he began serving as the president and CEO of YPR. Today, he’s married with a one-year-old and working on an MBA. 

“Our life is very, very awesome,” he said. 

A Mecca for Recovery 

While Riley’s life is awesome, he works hard at making other people’s lives epic—or at least that’s one part of YPR’s national programs, a peer-led support class called My Recovery is E.P.I.C.

The program’s name is an acronym for some of its key components: it’s evidence-based, peer-delivered, individual development, and is community-focused.

One of the communities where the program has been focused is Kerrville, Texas. Population: 22,663.

“If you look on a map,” said chapter head Tony Farmer, “Kerrville is directly between three different treatment centers all within a 20-mile radius. We have about 25 to 30 recovery residences for both males and female. It’s become a mecca for recovery and specifically for young people in recovery.”

My Recovery is E.P.I.C. came to Kerrville about a year ago. At first, the San Antonio chapter of YPR facilitated the program in an area treatment center, but that made for a lot of driving, Farmer explained. “So YPR reached out to the center and asked if anyone would be interested in starting a local chapter and they reached out to me,” he said

Now, the Kerrville chapter has 35 to 40 members, with Farmer at the helm. A former meth user, Farmer got into recovery himself in 2012. 

“I was raised a church preacher’s kid and we were raised in a very strict home and I was a straight-A student,” he said, “but when I got out of high school, I needed to experience life and I started dabbling at bars. It was blackout drunk the first time.”

In 2006, he started using meth and six years later—“almost to the day”—he had a spiritual experience and got sober. Now, he’s working part-time for both YPR and a hospital and going to school for a nursing degree.


Age is Just a Number

Although many YPR members—like Riley and Farmer—are in their 20s, there is no age limit. 

“There’s no hard and fast rule on what is young,” Riley said. “We’re not going to tell people, sorry you’re almost 30 years old. We work with people who are older than us—people in their 40s and 50s.” 

Ted Collins, a chapter head in Los Angeles, is one of those people. The 43-year-old app developer explained, “I’m a person in long-term recovery which means that I haven’t done drugs or drunk the past almost two years.” 

Collins started the LA chapter after reaching out to the national organization for local contacts. “I asked if there was an LA chapter and they said, ‘No, why don’t you start one?’ We became an officially minted chapter in January of this year.” 

The chapter Collins leads does a lot of outreach to colleges and also offers employment events for people in early recovery. There’s talk of a sober dance, and the group is networking with other recovery organizations to figure out possible collaborations. 

“There’s so much recovery here in Los Angeles. It’s almost overwhelming,” Collins said. He estimated that the average age in his group is somewhere in the late 20s, but to him “young” can also refer to where someone is in their recovery.

“To me, we’re trying to help people who are early in their recovery and create something that is aspirational for people who are early in recovery to participate in,” he said.

Where Recovery Meets Reentry

Tara Moseley, 29, is the chapter head in Louisville, Kentucky—which she pronounces “Loo-ville” with her Southern drawl. Close to five years sober, Moseley got involved in YPR in June 2014, after she stumbled across the organization’s Facebook page. 

Like some of the other chapters, the Louisville group has focused a lot on work that might more typically be associated with prisoner reentry than addiction recovery. But, as Moseley pointed out, many people emerge from addiction with criminal records. To address the impact of that, YPR has done employment workshops and connected with employers willing to hire felons. 

“We help them find jobs and write resumes,” she said. “We kind of coach them on what to wear, what to ask and how to tell their story without being graphic or using negative language.”

For recovering people looking to further their education, the group also offers assistance in preparing for the grueling college admissions process. “We help them with filling out FAFSA and have gotten a few people started into colleges,” she said.

Like many other YPR chapters, the Kentucky group also hosts workshops at rehabs and outpatient treatment centers, advocates for political change, holds rallies, and does local volunteer work such as syringe clean-ups.

While some chapters draw heavily on college campuses for participants, Moseley said that a lot of the people served by the Louisville chapter are hooking up with YPR through workshops and at transitional housing. YPR does its best to meet their needs, much in the way a reentry program might. 

“They’re just trying to piece their lives back together,” Moseley said—and YPR is just trying to help.

Keri Blakinger is a writer and prison-reform activist living near New York City. A writer for The New York Daily News, she has also been published in The Washington Post, Salon, and Quartz. She recently wrote about the drug policies of the 2016 Presidential Candidates as well as the problem with drug treatment programs in prison.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.