The Craft of Reclamation: Sustainable Addiction Recovery in Appalachia
March 4, 2022
Written by JACK SHULER
Photography by ANDREW FEIGHT
In Appalachian Ohio, craftsmanship is a vital piece of the growing support system for recovery—philosophically, economically, and on a very personal scale.
Editor’s Note: On March 1, 2022, in his State of the Union speech, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to spend $40 billion on new health services for the millions of Americans suffering from substance use disorder. Just days before that speech, several drug companies settled opioid lawsuits offering billions more to states across the country. While these developments will undoubtedly be helpful, none address one of the root causes of substance use disorder and overdose in many communities, especially in rural America: the steady decline in work opportunities, and the sense of hopelessness that comes with not having a job. We hope the following story helps both local and national leaders fill this policy gap.
Natalie Dungee is not supposed to be here, if you believe the stereotypes. Now in her 30s, Natalie stands around 5 feet tall, blonde and thin, and she’s six years in recovery from opioid use disorder. Natalie is also a fledgling woodworker whose craft has been a friend to her on her path to recovery and stability.
But right now, as I watch her hammering on a planer in her shop, she’s got a problem. She’s got three different projects going, which means three different people are counting on her, so she’s a little stressed—a good stress, she says. We’re in her friend’s barn, which Natalie has converted into a woodshop, with tables and shelves she made herself, and a wall of tools she’s managed to buy or that friends and family have given her. She never imagined she’d be here, either.
Born in Athens, Ohio, Natalie has found a home in Nelsonville, just down the road. In Athens County, the poverty rate is 30.2 percent—more than double the U.S. national average of 13.2 percent. It’s no surprise, then, that when Natalie stopped using heroin, she was left with very little—not even a driver’s license. Then, two years ago, her husband died and she needed something to occupy her time. She started with woodburning, and when the wood proved too costly to buy, she scavenged it. Then a friend got her a jigsaw. An early piece she made with it hangs from a nail tacked into a door frame. “Get lost in the right direction,” it reads. She copied the saying from a coloring book, she tells me, laughing.
She has learned a lot about her craft in two years, primarily by watching YouTube videos and talking to other woodworkers—not just how to use tools and plane wood, but also the names of trees, to notice the tannins in the wood, how to make her own stain.
Natalie is now plugged into efforts by two local organizations, ACEnet (the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks) and Rural Action. Together, with funding from ARC (Appalachian Regional Commission), they are creating a network of programs—from workshops to business incubators—to help people in recovery find their way as entrepreneurs or, failing that, find some sustainable job. Through this network, Natalie received a scholarship that gave her access to tools and equipment she wouldn’t otherwise have, and to courses on entrepreneurship.
About two hours west of Athens County, in Portsmouth, Ohio, the Kricker Innovation Hub is one of the more ambitious new operations teaching people, including recovering addicts, how to start their own businesses. A project of Shawnee State University, Kricker hosts workshops such as an upcoming “Entrepreneurial Journey Bootcamp” and has ambitions to grow into a powerhouse for innovation in the region.
That may seem improbable in Portsmouth. The poverty rate is 36.5 percent in the city proper and 23.1 percent in surrounding Scioto County, which has one of the highest the overdose rates in the state. In Columbus, only a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, things are bustling and folks could find jobs aplenty. But Portsmouth has suffered the worst effects of deindustrialization. Like many towns in Appalachia, it’s one of those places where an outsider might say it’s better to just leave, go look for work somewhere else.
That sentiment disrespects the culture, says Josh Lawson, Kricker’s recovery program coordinator. “You’re dismissing their family. That’s where their memories are.”
As part of his work with Kricker, Lawson helps coordinate the LIGHTS Inclusive initiative that brings together several support organizations in the region, including Rural Action and ACENet. Together, they are working to transform the community from within.
If there’s a monument to Portsmouth’s scrappiness, it’s the old Mitchellace factory building on Gallia Street. In its heyday, the shoe and lace factory’s hulking six stories of brick and concrete must have conveyed a sense of permanence. But over time, as various shoe companies changed hands and less and less of the space was used for manufacturing, it started to look empty and forlorn. For years, the ghostly building provided the quintessential shot for journalists reporting on Portsmouth: “sad, abandoned factory represents sad, opioid-riddled town.”
There’s a kernel of truth in the stereotype. Portsmouth has struggled since the steel mill shut down in the 1980s and manufacturing jobs dwindled. Overdoses, substance use disorder, and poverty are all real problems here. But the full story, of course, is more complicated.
Today, the 360,000-square-foot factory is being renovated by The Counseling Center to become perhaps the largest addiction and mental health recovery center in Southern Ohio, a sort of one-stop shop to consolidate services that are currently scattered around the area: withdrawal management, clinical space, transitional space, housing, and more. Max Liles, the senior director who took me on a tour, called it an “efficiency improvement project.”
We walk out onto the partially finished roof, where Liles makes sure I watch my step. But I’m having trouble looking where I’m going because all around me—the sky, the hills, the river—there is such magnificence.
Liles says young people have been told for years that nothing is good here, that they should leave. “It’s a curse of Appalachia—we are super resilient, super resourceful, we can stand together to survive the un-survivable. It’s also the curse of the Appalachian that we don’t trust outsiders, while simultaneously waiting on outsiders to come save us.” It would be far better, he believes, to work with the people who are here—that’s how you build a sustainable community.
An Ecosystem of Mutual Aid
Our mission is about recognizing what we have, not in terms of the despair, but in terms of, what are the assets? How do we build up those assets in sustainable ways?
I’m standing with Paul Patton, Social Enterprise Director for Rural Action, in the Athens Makerspace storefront located on the west side of Athens, Ohio. One side of the room is lined with bolts of cloth, the other with sewing machines. Patton, 40, is a bright-faced man with shoulder-length blond hair and work boots.
“In Southeastern Ohio, Appalachia,” Patton says, “most of the jobs have come from coal, natural gas, and timber. [Jobs that] take things out of the community”—leaving behind wastelands, acid mine drainage, fields that aren’t farmable, clear-cut forests. “Our mission is about recognizing what we have,” he says, “not in terms of the despair, but in terms of, what are the assets? How do we build up those assets in sustainable ways?”
Nearby, their partners at ACEnet host incubator space for new businesses and a shared-use kitchen, services that help startups save on overhead costs. They’ve helped launch successful local businesses such as Shagbark Seed and Mill, Frog Ranch Salsa, and DB Yummers BBQ Sauce, among others. When local restaurateurs who ACEnet helped start run out of some staple, they will race over to barter with another business owner for flour or what-have-you. This kind of mutual aid, Patton tells me, is ingrained in Appalachian culture.
ACEnet and the Makerspace are also part of the LIGHTS Inclusive network that Josh Lawson coordinates, and they provide scholarships for budding craftspeople like Natalie. In 2022, they are offering 35 ARC-funded scholarships, almost double their previous efforts. People in the scholarship program work one-on-one with teachers in the Makerspace; they also take general classes to find a craft to specialize in. If they do well, then they go to Chris Quolke, Small Business Support Specialist & Trainer for ACEnet, where they work on developing formal business plans.
Part of Rural Action’s mission, and that of many of their partners, like ACEnet, is to build on the assets of the region—one of the reasons they’re especially interested in woodworking, Patton says. “There are 24 billion dollars in wood-related activities in Ohio’s GDP,” Quolke told me, “and Appalachian counties only see approximately 20 percent of that money going back into their economies—even though most of the trees harvested in Ohio are coming from Appalachian counties.”
The makerspace is just one piece of the local value chain that includes timber farms, mills and kilns, woodworking operations, and sales. Patton says if Rural Action and its partners can think through the whole chain—from creating sustainably managed forests to creating sustainable woodworking businesses—they can give to the community rather than extract.
That chain begins with sustainable farming, or “whole farm planning,” in which forestry experts study a parcel and create a management plan focused on keeping timber stands in place, rather than clear-cutting. Good forestry management also supports non-timber forest products—like ginseng, goldenseal, ramps, and mushrooms, all of which grow well in this climate—and helps farmers consider other funding streams, such as agro-tourism and solar.
Patton has found that it can be a challenge to get some farmers and landowners to accept delayed rather than immediate returns—and the costs can be a burden. But in the long run, a whole-farm approach, and a more sustainable approach to the whole value chain, rewards the entire community. “We can talk all day about the despair of the Appalachian region—that’s what we’ve inherited,” Patton says. But he would rather share a message of “despite versus despair,” which he defines this way: “Despite the legacy of all these things that have occurred and all of these hurdles folks are faced with,” he says, “there’s resilience, there’s culture, there’s the ability to have a space that’s creative.”
Despite the legacy of all these things that have occurred and all of these hurdles folks are faced with, there’s resilience, there’s culture, there’s the ability to have a space that’s creative.
Creativity is manifest, too, in the ways that communities across Appalachian Ohio are learning to work together to support people who are in recovery. Many of the people I spoke with used the word “ecosystem” to describe the networks of support—it must be the term of the moment. But it’s a concept as old as the foothills of Appalachia: It’s Natalie’s neighbor giving her space in her barn to work; Natalie’s family and friends donating tools; the restaurateur borrowing flour from a baker at ACEnet.
One Plank at a Time
In one corner of her woodshop, Natalie keeps a pile of wood she has reclaimed, much of it from pallets destined for landfills. She can’t stand to see good material thrown away. A train whistles in the background and our breath settles in the air as we talk about the wood, where it came from, where it’s going. She’s at home in this space, showing off her tools, her projects. Her goal is to be able to support herself, at least in part, through her woodworking.
At one point in her life, Natalie was homeless—moving from couch to couch, living one day at a time, and using upwards of 8 grams of heroin a day. Until she had a series of epiphanies. “The sickness was the hardest thing,” she says. “Then realizing, wow, my whole life is just destroyed. It would have been easy to go back to drugs after realizing my life was destroyed.”
But it wasn’t destroyed—she wasn’t destroyed. She was just at a crossroads, starting from scratch, and she didn’t know where to begin. With the help of a social worker, Natalie began to put things in order. She got her driver’s license back; she started working. She started taking Suboxone, an effective, medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.Before Natalie’s husband passed away, he got a job driving a cargo van and she would travel with him across the United States. Those were good times, she remembers, just the two of them together. When they unexpectedly got stuck in New Orleans for a week, they parked by a bridge one night and met the unhoused people who were living under it. “They were homeless,” Natalie says, “but they just seemed like good people in a bad situation. The vibe was awesome.”
Natalie had been there before, in some ways. And now she’s here, in her own workshop on a cold night in December, feeding wood into the planer—reclaiming, rebuilding—the whine of the machine piercing the evening quiet.
To find free naloxone, reach out to your local health department or contact NEXT Distro. Support services for people who use drugs are available through Never Use Alone. For help with substance use disorder, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.