Vine Neighborhood

Recovery Institute going strong as Kalamazoo's only peer-run mental health support center

Many pass by the building that is home to Recovery Institute of Southwest Michigan, Inc., 1020 South Westnedge Ave., each day, but may not be aware of what goes on inside its walls. 

“Whether you are an employee or someone who needs a service, this building is for people who have a lived experience in recovery and are sharing it with others who seek to recover,” says Shareé Niblack, Recovery Institute Family Dependency Treatment Court Liaison. “It’s a no-judgment zone.”

While offering a wide range of classes, groups, individual coaching and social services support for people who are experiencing substance use or mental health diagnoses, the Recovery Institute is also a place to just come and hang out. But as the only peer-run, peer-directed recovery center in the county, it’s also so much more.

With 25 partner agencies, including its primary partner, Integrated Services of Kalamazoo County (formerly Community Mental Health), the Recovery Institute is helping create a culture of peer-directed recovery and de-stigmatization of substance use and mental health issues throughout the county. It is accomplishing this through working with the seven treatment courts, local psychiatric clinics, neighborhood associations, colleges, hospitals, homeless shelters and most recently, the Kalamazoo Public Library through its successful year-old Peer Navigator Program.

The Institute’s reach is wide, but its mission is simple: instilling hope and providing a path to self-management and wellness for those seeking recovery.

“One of the most important things we offer, outside of our groups and classes and connecting people with resources, is basically an ear,” says Jonathan Stewart, Peer Support Specialist. “It’s a different thing to talk with someone who has had similar experiences than with someone in a clinic. There’s equality. We engage, too, but the primary act is listening. If you don’t listen, there’s no way to lay the groundwork for any sort of mutuality.”

Through peer listening, agree both Niblack and Stewart, trust can develop and the next steps toward recovery can be taken. 

“The most powerful part of recovery is having someone able to listen when you need someone to listen,” says Niblack. “The healing is what comes out of that connection.”

At the Recovery Institute, steps toward healing may take the form of guidance with social service agencies, lodging or food. Or they may mean participation in one of the Institute’s many peer-led groups, which range from healing trauma, focused recovery groups for LGBTQI, diversion/treatment court support, safety training, mental health support and tobacco recovery, to classes, including arts, wellness, meditation, art, walking, writing and health management.

The Institute also offers Recovery Coaching, a more intensive layer of support that helps participants begin to develop a community and plan that promotes recovery.

In 2018, almost 1,700 people were served and more than 120 groups a month offered. Trained peers offer evidence-based practices, which include the use of action plans regarding crisis management for substance use or mental health, as well as promoting plans for seeking safety for domestic abuse survivors.

“Primarily what we offer is a place where people who are experiencing addiction or mental health concerns and who are working on their recovery can find people like themselves, and that includes the staff,” says Sean Harris, Executive Director of Recovery Institute. “It’s more of a healing environment and a place of belonging as opposed to a clinical treatment center. People can socialize and work together on their recovery rather than just coming for their individual service.”
Through sharing their recovery stories, staff and volunteers of the Recovery Institute seek to make Kalamazoo a stigma-free community.
In fact, the most important requirement for a job or a position on the Recovery Institute’s board of directors, with the exception of Harris as director, is that the volunteer or employee must have lived experience in recovery with substance use or a mental health diagnosis. And most peer support specialists will tell you their own recovery journey is ongoing and supported in turn by the support they give others.

“We have a really good track record of doing our work,” says Harris. “All of our staff have gone off disability by working here and have become taxpayers again. They are giving back in multiple ways.”

The Recovery Institute serves a wide range of people who have different needs and backgrounds, says Stewart, but most importantly, all of its services are free. 

“When you walk in here, you are within a community of peers,” says Niblack. “We don’t ask for a diagnosis. We don’t say, ‘Where’s your Medicaid card?’ People can walk in at any time to do a group, but if they just need to use the computer or get a cup of coffee, we’re here for that, too.”

Peer Navigators at Kalamazoo Public Library

Each year of its 13-year existence, the Recovery Institute has expanded its reach—through the courts, psychiatric clinics, homeless shelters, social service agencies, health clinics, and colleges and universities, among others. 

In September, 2018, a unique partnership was formed with the Kalamazoo Public Library called Peer Navigators. On the second floor of the central branch, Peer Navigators staff a desk and offer an ear, words of encouragement, and information regarding countywide social services and recovery-based programs. Harris and Kevin King, Head of KPL Branch and Circulation Services, agree it was a natural collaboration. 

“In many ways, we have a lot in common,” says Harris of the Institute and the library. “Recovery Institute is a recovery resource center where we direct people to any type of service available in town. That’s one of our key roles. The library has a very similar mission as a resource of information and culture and knowledge. They were serving patrons who had needs in the community that they weren’t super-sure how to handle, whether from homelessness or hunger. It’s been a great fit.”

King, inspired by five Peer Navigator programs he had been following that are all in major cities, such as New York and San Francisco, hatched the idea with Harris and the pilot program has been a huge success. Last year, 470 contacts were made, with 4.2 patrons served every hour in the 15-hour per week program. This year, the program has received additional funding and is expanding to 40 hours. 

“The library in most communities is the most non-stigmatized, non-biased institution,” says King. “You go to the library to get warm, to go to the bathroom, to generally feel safe.  A lot of times when people come to the library, they have issues with mental health, social needs, or homelessness. Our job at the library is to connect people to resources, and now we’re doing this through people.”

In addition to offering Care Kits, with toiletries and essentials, Peer Navigators are earning the trust of patrons. “We’ve had many success stories,” says King. “We’re honored to watch people get keys to a new place to live.”

King has dreams of the library becoming a hub for social services in the community.  “This community is a really caring and compassionate community,” says King. “In the library world for over 15 years, we’ve been trying to look at our mission of being less of an ivory tower. The book is never going to die. But we are diversifying our services and becoming more of a resource center.”

Pleased with the program’s success, King says he hopes to launch other community partnerships. “This helps us do our job better as librarians,” says King. “It helps us become more compassionate. And we’re honored to do it.”

Power Group: Decreasing stigma and discriminating beliefs

Over its 13 years, Recovery Institute has seen tremendous growth. In 2006, Power Group, which is an ongoing group of those in recovery who share their stories with the public, conceived of the concept of a peer-led, peer-directed center and found county support through Integrated Services of Kalamazoo. 

The first Institute was located at the Park Trades Center, but after receiving two years of federal funding, they opened their current office on South Westnedge Avenue. In 2013, they expanded to the courts, and in 2016 to the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital.

Currently, Power Group visits college health, psychology and nursing classes, courts, and other social service institutions. “Power Group members are passionate about reducing and eliminating stigma attached to substance use recovery or a mental health diagnosis,” says Niblack, Power Group Coordinator. “We tell our recovery story to provide hope that recovery is possible.” 

“Within the schools and the social service organizations, there’s been a real reduction of stigma,” says Harris. “With the community at large, we still battle with media that continues to reinforce stigma. But within schools and treatment centers, there’s been a dramatic decrease in discriminating beliefs.”

With her own story of substance use recovery to tell, Niblack’s first experiences with Recovery Institute was a safe place where she could have a cup of coffee. As an employee for the last five years, Niblack says, “I am blessed to be able to work with individuals who are at a place in recovery to share their story and also for the opportunity to live out as someone who is at this place in my story where I can say, I work full-time, and do the things that keep me well as I move forward in my journey.”

Stewart, who has a mental health issue, admits to long being reluctant to attend Recovery Institute, even though many suggested it to him. Eventually, he decided to see for himself and now is employed there full-time. “It’s so important that we are sharing our stories. You may be the person who plants the seed. You may not see what happens, but the garden does grow some time, somewhere.”

“We share our stories to convey the hope that you can get better,” says Niblack. “You can have wellness.”

For more information about the Recovery Institute programs, please see

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.