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Rising to recovery: Sobriety group to raise awareness for local recovery initiatives

Sober Squad members Randell Sam (left), Brittany Egan and Colin Cash talk about their group's work to empower those suffering from addiction. That work includes the Rising to Recovery Walk, set for Sunday, Oct. 21, at Lum Park in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Oct. 21 will be an emotional day for Brittany Egan.

Heroin needles, run-ins with law enforcement and jail stays are in her troubled past. Working on sobriety and helping others to do the same is her present and future.

On Sunday, Oct. 21, friends, family and supporters will surround Egan as she walks through northeast Brainerd with a sign held high, reading, "I'm in recovery, and I'm not anonymous."

Inspirational messages urging addicts to reach out for help and demonstrating the possibility of recovery will be plentiful that day.

The Rising to Recovery Walk, sponsored by Sober Squad, is aimed at raising awareness for the drug problems in the community and empowering those fighting addiction.

"To be able to walk through northeast, where I used to run around and use drugs and sell drugs, I think is going to be very emotional and kind of healing," Egan said. "To be able to be on this side and not stuck inside in the basement—it's a rollercoaster. It's an emotional rollercoaster."

Having been sober now since July, the only thing giving the 25-year-old mother of two a high these days is being active in Sober Squad, a locally formed group with thousands of members across the state, founded to support those struggling with drugs, alcohol or any other addiction or problem they might face.

"It could be mental health recovery. We don't care," Egan said of the group. "As long as you're trying to better yourself, really that's what it's about is becoming a better person."

Being involved in Sober Squad events and surrounding herself with peers who know what she's going through is what keeps Egan on her path of sobriety. And other members have similar stories.

"When you've got that emptiness of not using anymore, you've got to find something, and I'm finding it with love," Sober Squad member Randell Sam said. "When I sobered up, I knew I had to sacrifice family, friends, everything. And I met all these guys from Sober Squad. They kept me sober until I got into treatment. They kept me sober when I got out of treatment. And now I decided to do the same for everybody else."

Sam, Egan and other Sober Squad members shared stories of hardship, perseverance and success with the Brainerd Dispatch amidst earnestness, laughter and apparent friendship Tuesday, Oct. 9, at Coco Moon coffee shop in downtown Brainerd.

With three years of sobriety under his belt, Sober Squad founding member Colin Cash explained his vision for the group, started roughly a year ago to combat overdoses on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, and the best things to come out of it since.

"I think the most important element of all of this is that it is a grassroots movement," he said. "It's not a government program, state program, county program. It is grassroots at its core, and that's what's so inspiring about it."

Cash's grassroots movement—which he noted is open to anyone, not just the Native community—gained momentum through various events the past few months. July saw a volleyball tournament on the reservation to raise awareness about Sober Squad and its purpose. In September, a group of members—including Egan, Sam and Cash—traveled to Lake of the Isles to take part in the Minnesota Walk for Recovery. The next day, the group went back out and took to Ojibwe Drive, on the northwest side of the reservation in Vineland, with their own walk. Cash said they traipsed through some of the worst neighborhoods with their positive message.

The Mille Lacs event inspired Egan to bring the good vibes to Brainerd.

"I don't think we've ever had anything like that here," she said. "And in my head I'm just seeing a big group of us walking down Washington (Street), and I want people to look and ... to see that we have a huge recovery community and there's help out there."

Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston said he can't think of any similar event ever taking place in Brainerd and thinks the walk will be beneficial for the community.

"I think that our demographics in this area definitely pose a challenge for people that struggle with chemical dependency," McQuiston said. "And hopefully something like this shows that there are options, there is hope, that there is support in our community to help people that struggle with these kinds of things."

Sober Squad is more than just being there emotionally for those struggling with addiction, though. Because many recovering addicts—especially those just coming out of jail or treatment—don't have driver's licenses or transportation, Sober Squad helps out where it can.

"We're always looking for volunteers," Sam said, "people that will go out of their way to take somebody to detox, to a hospital, to a meeting."

"Whatever issue," Cash said, "no matter where it is in the state, there's a good chance that there is a Sober Squad member that is going to answer that call."

And compensation for gas or other expenses comes from the members' own pockets.

"Everything we do is from the heart," Sam said. "A lot of people want recovery, but they just don't know how to take that first step. And we just show them love and support any way we can."

Emotional support is certainly part of that, too. Egan and Cash recently visited the Crow Wing County Jail to meet with a release coordinator and pass on Sober Squad's contact information.

"That way, people are getting out, and if they need someone to spend that first day with to stay sober, we can be there. Or if someone's thinking about getting into recovery and even wants a visit, somebody can go visit," Egan said, noting she's grateful for support from her family, but not everyone in recovery may have that. "So if we can be there to be that person to get them from jail to treatment safely without using, then that gives them a lot higher of a chance of being able to have a successful recovery."

Cash wants to get the Sober Squad name out there so those seeking help know there are others in the same situation.

"Here is a group of people that everybody gave up on. Everybody. And we are on the frontlines against the drug epidemic," he said. "It's all the people that have been there and know it, and now we're on the other side."

For group member Nicholas Awalt, shared hardships are what make Sober Squad so special and successful.

"You have someone that's been through that struggle, so you can't say, 'Oh, you don't know how I feel.' We do know how you feel; let's talk about it," Awalt said. "Get ahold of us because we understand the pain, the emptiness."

Egan certainly knows that pain well. She started her sobriety over in July, after an abundance of ups and downs.

"I had 4 1/2 years (sober), and I relapsed. I fell back into addiction for a good solid year from getting a prescription for the doctor, and it turned into a full-blown heroin addiction all over again," she said. "I lost everything."

When an ex-partner overdosed while Egan's kids were in the house last December, child protective services got involved. Losing her kids drove her to more drug use to bury the pain.

"I would sober up, and they still wouldn't really trust me to have the kids for visits, so then I would use again. It was like this vicious cycle of, 'I don't have my kids, I feel horrible, I need to mask the pain,'" she said. "All I needed to do was get out of that, and I could have them."

Thanks to her child protective services worker, who she described as "amazing," and a judge willing to give her one last chance, Egan is on the road to recovery once again. She gets to see her kids weekly and is hopeful she'll get custody back in a few months.

"I'm not taking this for granted," she said.

Getting too comfortable and not actively working on her sobriety, Egan said, contributed to her downward spiral.

"For me to stay sober, I have to do something like this," she said of her activity in Sober Squad. "Doing this is helping me stay clean. I have to be staying involved."

Her constant involvement now landed her the nickname Pink Cloud among her Sober Squad friends.

"People talk about the 'pink cloud' after treatment, but mine doesn't really go away," she said. "I get a high off of the feeling after going into a meeting or the feeling after being with these guys and doing something."

As she moves forward with her pink cloud of sobriety, Egan plans to go back to school so she can someday turn her volunteer efforts into a career.

"Five to 10 years from now, I'd like to be doing this for a living," she said. "I'd like to be able to help other addicts find recovery for a living."

But for now, Egan is working diligently with her Sober Squad allies to get the group registered as a nonprofit and to spread awareness for the recovery help available in the community.

"I know that some way my story will help inspire somebody else," she said. "So I'm not shy about it in any way, shape or form."

And that's what it's all about.

"I want people to know what we do," Egan said. "It's more than just pictures after a meeting. It's more than just going for coffee. We're really here to help people get sober."

Rising to Recovery Walk

What: 5K walk, prize drawings for local gift certificates, speakers with addiction stories.

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21. Registration begins at 11 a.m., with the walk at noon and other activities to follow.

Where: Lum Park on Washington Street in northeast Brainerd will serve as the start and finish of the walk.

Other details: The first 300 registrants will receive a free Sober Squad T-shirt. The front will bear the Sober Squad logo, with the back reading "There is hope. Ask me how."

Those who enter for drawings must participate in the walk and be present afterward to win. Free hot dogs, sloppy Joes, coffee, water and pop will be available after the walk.

Activities—including the walk—are open to everyone.

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