Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with one of the most dynamic and groundbreaking individuals the recovery community has ever known. He is a Lieutenant on the Boston Fire Department and co-ordinates their Employee Assistance Program, his name is Willy Ostiguy and for those who don’t know, he is an E.A.P. pioneer with over 30 years of experience and most recently, Lt. Ostiguy has been the driving force behind a recovery high school movement that is profoundly changing lives as you read this.
While it would take an eternity to describe what makes Lt. Ostiguy such an impressive individual, hopefully the interview below will give you a glimpse into his profound life and his even more powerful life’s work.
JA: How did you find this path Willy – more specifically, you have spent a huge portion of your life helping others, what is your inspiration?
WO: Basically, it was when I first got into recovery forty years ago, then it trickled over to the Boston Fire Department, then it trickled over to the community, then the board of Gavin House, the recovery high school, etc.
JA: You are a legend in Boston in have been the recipient of many awards like the Shamrock/James Kelly Award, the Joe Walsh Community Service Award, the John Hennessey Labor Award, the Distinguished Service Award from the Boston Fire Department, the M.A.A.D.A.C. Service Award for helping create the Recovery High Schools in Massachusetts and now the Fred R. French Award for Excellence. How do you stay so humble?
WO: Well, I have a program that teaches me – I don’t want to get so caught up in all of this. It’s a gift and I should be helping others. I need to stay the right size – I don’t need anything to blow my head up any bigger than it is already. (An unmistakable smile fills Willy’s face)
JA: You always seem so confident – does anything make you nervous… like acceptance speeches?
WO: I get nervous, but usually it’s internal so it doesn’t appear like I am, but anybody in these positions would be nervous accepting an award.
JA: After working as a pioneer in the E.A.P. community for nearly 30 years, would you say that the role of E.A.Ps and their ability to be helpful is constantly improving? Or are there still a significant number of employers out there who don’t recognize their value?
WO: I think there is still a big part of employers out there who need to recognize the value of the Employee Assistance Program. I think there are still too many sick people in the workforce who need help. If they (the employer) doesn’t recognize it and get them (the employee) help, the employee is not going to be productive; you know they are not going to be happy or have a good life. It will just trickle over to their whole life.
JA: Too many places don’t provide an E.A.P. service…
WO: Too many places don’t, they don’t recognize it. You know a lot of people, as far as E.A.Ps, have come a long way, but some people still think it’s very much a moral issue, and that depends on where they are coming from. A lot of employers, they will have a paper E.A.P. program, they do it because the Federal Government tells them they have to do it. There is really no substance to it, you know. If you are not getting hands on with people that work for you, you’re not much of an employer. Hopefully all employers will base their E.A.P. on rehabilitation, not termination. Like any disease, the individual should be allowed to get help/rehabilitation.
JA: Does it frustrate you that even in this day and age some people do not accept alcoholism and drug addiction as a disease?
WO: It does frustrate me. I understand it to a degree, but by the same token, if they look at alcoholism, look at drug addiction and if they look what’s happened over the past 30 years with the drug testing and all of the treatment laws that have been implemented, because of substance abuse… to not recognize it? That’s ridiculous.
JA: You have been a pivotal figure on many boards and a true recovery pioneer – what are your top priorities for the recovery community in the near future?
WO: I am going to continue to try and make a difference in how substance abuse is viewed in the community, the workplace, and try to get people the treatment they need for their substance abuse problems. We have three established recovery high schools in Massachusetts; there are other communities now who want the recovery high schools in their area. My feelings are that we should be giving these kids the opportunity to stay straight and get an education. Without an education, and a substance abuse problem… you are doomed! You know these schools give them a setting where they feel safe, and give them an education. We found that 90% of kids, who relapsed, relapsed in their current high schools. That’s where they got whatever substances they were using, all their friends were using (peer pressure). It would be like putting you in treatment for alcoholism and then locking you in a bar and seeing how long you would last before you picked up a drink.
JA: How does it feel to have a school named after you?
WO: That’s a humbling experience too, because of Senator Steve Tolman and Rep. Brian Wallace the recovery high school in Boston is named the William J. Ostiguy Recovery High School, (Yahoo!) (There’s that smile again) you know the concept finally was adapted. I went with Senator Steve Tolman to Minnesota and we brought back the recovery high school concept. Minnesota has 10 sober high schools with over 600 students. It took us about two years for it to be accepted. Everyone thought it was a great idea, but no one wanted to fund it. This is the fifth year for recovery high school in Massachusetts. So we have kids who have graduated. We just had a young lady who got a full ride to Providence College, who was bouncing in and out of the court system because of her substance abuse problem. She is a bright young lady. 90% of the kids graduated from the recovery high school and 50% go on to higher education. So it is a simple concept, and it is working.
JA: Tell me more about the school with the greatest name ever?
WO: The recovery high schools in Massachusetts are all run a little different., the recovery high schools are run differently state by state, what we did in Massachusetts, again because of Senator Steve Tolman and then Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey is that the state government gave each school 2.5 million as startup for the project and now that the five years are up, they will fund it again. We used Boston Teacher’s Union teachers. The kids that come in are usually referred by the courts, the families, P.Y.S. and a lot of different systems. They are starting in the justice system; they cost the system a lot of money you know. They come to the school and they are evaluated. They have to have a substance abuse problem/diagnosis. They come with their families to be interviewed for the recovery high school. We want family input, we don’t want just the child and we don’t want to be counterproductive. Some kids unfortunately are in settings where the parents have just as many problems as them. We need to see what the family dynamics are.
JA: Any chance of expanding, franchising the schools?
WO: Actually, its funny you should say that. Senator Tolman and I just went down to talk to Senator Steve Tassoni in RI, he took the time out of his busy day and we laid the ground work for a RHS in RI. They want to have a couple of RHS in Rhode Island. We have been working with, believe it or not, New York. New York is one of the few states that do not have a recovery high school. You would think that with just the volume of people they would have it but they do not. You know I would like to see it in every State.
JA: The track record alone of the success speaks for itself.
WO: The people I know in recovery, myself included; I went to school with 2400 boys and you could have taken 400 at any given time who were completely out of control. That doesn’t mean we could not function; it just means we were out of control and I could have used a school like that. Whether I recognized it at that time is a different story, but there are a lot of kids that, I mean most of the people in jail, have substance abuse issues. What we saw was a lot of the young boys were starting out in the penal system and the young girls were becoming single moms – it was the beginning of the end for them. Their lives were over before they could even start… bright, young people. It’s a tragedy. If you look at the bigger picture of the system, someone told me and I can’t remember the stat right now, but untreated alcoholism over a lifetime costs society 1.2 million dollars each. This concept from an economic standpoint is great, it’s simple and that’s why it’s catching on.
JA: Where can people find out more about your organization and the projects you are involved with?
WO: Sure, well you can check out a web page about the high school, as well as get the brochure online.
WO: When we were doing research there were 76,000 kids (age 14-18) in Massachusetts, who had substance abuse issues. Out of them only 16,000 got treatment. That leaves 60,000 who were left untreated and of the ones who did get treatment, 90% relapsed. It’s a very difficult population to treat, but the more options they have, the better their chances of early recovery.
JA: Do you feel that the younger generation, adolescents, teens from a personal and professional perspective, do you believe that it’s a lot harder for them to find the right level of care?
WO: I do. I think we have made progress with adolescent programs, but we need a tremendous amount more. I’m involved with the Gavin Foundation, which has an adolescent program (Cushing House) for girls and boys. We have a six week waiting list. There are probably a half dozen adolescent treatment programs in Massachusetts. With the numbers I gave you before, that is ridiculous. You know so there is a need to make progress.
JA: One would think with such a demand, more people’s eyes would be open to this kind of solution. The numbers don’t lie…
WO: As a parent, if you’re not involved, your child is not involved; if your child is abusing substances now it’s an emergency. You need to have healthy conversations so your interaction does not come between jail cells… It’s a population that a lot of people don’t want to address due to the low success.
JA: Thanks Willy, any final mentions?
WO: Thanks to Treatment Solutions – every time one of our people gets services from them, whether it’s a wife, husband, child or adolescent, there is progress. Every time I pick up the phone I get someone who I have a great relationship with, particularly Mike Blackburn, Jim Bevell and Juan Lesende.
Thank you very much Willy, congratulations, and good luck!