The R.E.A.C.H. OUT Project, “a recovery community where you live,” is a nonprofit organization which provides peer-mentor support to youth, individuals and families affected by substance use and/or mental health challenges. Recovery, education, accountability, community and hope.

With a goal to provide a safe environment for individuals without fear of judgment, misunderstanding, harassment or abuse, the project works to increase social connectedness, remove the stigma and create a sense of belonging within supportive peer networks as well as providing positive peer influences and opportunities which can help individuals develop self-acceptance and build self-esteem.

“Our vision through the R.E.A.C.H. OUT Project (ROP) peer-mentor model is to foster change in the lives of youth, individuals and families, and to work together to build a stronger community,” said Carol Cruz, founder, executive director and professional recovery support specialist/coach. “I started the program in 2013. Being a person in longtime recovery since 1994, I have been doing everything that I possibly can to get the word out - that recovery is possible. The face of recovery is not all the things that you see on the news. There are over 23 million people in America that are in recovery and are functioning working people. We are people no different than people who are struggling with cancer or diabetes or heart disease.”

Support is provided through peer-mentor programs and support groups which offer individuals and families training tools that are essential in the recovery process. “Our main focus is to provide peer-mentor support to youth, individuals and families in a safe environment,” said Cruz. A peer-mentor is an individual with “lived experience or an ally who can guide, coach and support others through their recovery process.”

“Our peer-mentors are here to help individuals and families develop SMART goals (specific, measureable, achievable, realistic, time related),” continued Cruz. “And to build resilience and confidence through communication helping to succeed in their recovery. Mentors are guides, advocates, coaches and teachers that can help individuals be aware of the onset of at risk behavior that can be triggered by substance use and other mental health disorders.”

Mario Castiello has been a volunteer since the first Recovery Walk in 2014, when he and his family attended in honor of his cousin Jessica Burrows, who passed away due to an accidental heroin overdose. “Carol (Cruz) and I share a vision where helping individuals make healthy choices can be a positive habit for those seeking recovery from addiction,” he explained. “That’s why I wanted to create a Community Wellness Walk (CWW).

As my experience grows in the healthcare profession, I have become enlightened by the lack of family support and person-centered care for individuals who come home from treatment and need to build healthy lifestyles. The ROP provides the presence of a healthy stigma-free community where individuals and families who are affected by addiction and mental health challenges can find resources, insight and can thrive. I am honored to be a part of a legacy that can potentially save lives.” Castiello holds a bachelors degree in Exercise Science from Southern Connecticut State University and is a rehabilitation associate for Physical and Occupational Therapy at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Nicole A. Salati, M.A., from Milford, is a board member and the Youth Program Coordinator for ROP. She teaches psychology at the University of Bridgeport and has plans to attend nursing school. “Over the years I have had the pleasure of working with numerous organizations in Milford. After completing my recovery coach training, Carol (Cruz) was not only my Instructor, she had become my colleague. As a true grassroots organization, ROP not only raises awareness around mental health and substance use disorders, but it is the first organization in Milford to openly discuss and advocate for change to end the stigma associated with the illness. The ROP has a lot of exciting new programs in the works and I am happy to be part of the process to support my community.”

Peer-based programs play an important role in developing supportive trusting relationships helping individuals learn how to access their own pathway to recovery increasing self-care and wellness. Mentors share their own experiences, knowledge and hope in support while encouraging education, employment, family unification and community involvement.

R.E.A.C.H. provides recovery support free of cost. “Our goal is to empower youth, individuals and their families to build personal resilience and to support them with community resources,” explained Cruz. “We want to reduce the stigma associated with behavioral, substance use and/or mental health disorders through education and communication.”

Community Wellness Walks at Walnut Beach are held each Sunday (weather permitting) at 12 noon through Dec. 3, and will begin again in the spring. Tax deductible donations are welcomed, training offered and volunteers are sought. Visit www.reachoutprojectinc.org for information.