WVU Collegiate Recovery Offers Safe Haven
Amber Swinehart, Ella Jennings, Janeé Avery
After the tragic death of a West Virginia University student in February 2016 involving a deadly mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs, one student and one faculty member decided to take real action on creating positive change right here on campus.
After a student transferred to WVU in January 2016, three short weeks later her life came to a sudden end. Melissa Joubert, the student’s roommate and close friend, found her unconscious in their apartment after a snow day that was anticipated as being a fun “day-drink.”
Joubert explained she initially thought her roommate was simply intoxicated and needed to sleep it off. However, upon finding her roommate’s phone in the bathroom, Joubert went to return it. Upon hearing no responses to any of her questions, Joubert entered her roommate’s the bedroom to find her friend not breathing.
“She simply wasn’t responding to me, I was screaming, so I went up to her bed and flipped her over,” Joubert explained, “I didn’t feel a pulse or anything and her hands were purple, so I dragged her to the floor to see if her chest was rising. When she was on the floor and I saw her chest wasn’t rising…I immediately called 911 and they walked me through the CPR process on the phone until the second the dispatchers got there to take her.”
In the midst of winter storm Jonas and 21 inches of snow in the roads and hills of Morgantown, medical attention was strongly affected. Joubert described the dual situations as “one giant storm.”
Joubert’s roommate was taken to Ruby Memorial Hospital and Joubert arrived as soon as she could.
“I sent her a text message that night, obviously not thinking about what was really happening or what was going to happen,” Joubert said, “My last text to her was, ‘When you read this, if you do, I love you.’ I still have it on my phone.”
Joubert’s roommate and friend passed away at age 19 due to a bad reaction from combining alcohol and prescription drugs.
While Joubert was sitting in the hospital with her friend, she received a call from Cathy Yura, thedirector of the WVU Collegiate Recovery Program—an entity that provides support for students who are in recovery from behavioral health conditions such as substance abuse and disordered eating.
“At the time she called me I was actually kind of annoyed because I had already been in the hospital for more than a day, I was dealing with so much between calling my roommate’s parents and calling my parents, calling our friends from back home, but Cathy was just walking me through things and asking me questions and if I needed anything or if I simply needed to talk to somebody,” Joubert said, “She told me she was going to be a therapist for me to walk me through this.”
After this tragic death, Yura and Joubert met in person and established a better relationship. Joubert explained to Yura she did not want any counseling, but did want to be involved in stopping this type of tragedy from happening to others.
“Cathy said that it would be an awesome opportunity if together we could try and make these tragedies be a less common thing, and team up to make something positive happen,” Joubert said.
Joubert teamed up with Yura to create what was initially designed as a “sober house” for students in need of a sheltered place away from drugs and alcohol. They pitched their idea to the school and to the recovery program, and things took off.
“The institution heard it, and understood it, and thank goodness, they moved ahead,” said Yura.
The “Serenity Place,” a facility generated by the WVU Collegiate Recovery Program, is a safe and sober zone for students and members of the community to congregate and engage in activities that help replace the void drug and alcohol abuse have created.
Yura explained that students both in recovery and those who simply support recovery worked hard to have a house they could gather in and came up with the name “Serenity Place.” According to Yura, the Serenity Place has seen soaring growth in the past academic year since it began in 2016.
Although there were other recovery organizations throughout Morgantown, such as Jacob’s Ladder, a drug addiction treatment center, there were no places directly on campus that offered what the Serenity Place has now created.
“We wanted a place directly affiliated with the university and in the name of WVU, not just Morgantown or other parts of West Virginia,” Joubert said.
Located at 369 Oakland Street behind Braxton Tower, Serenity Place is the only college-operated facility of itskind in West Virginia. Out of the 180 collegiate recovery programs in the country, it is one of 22 that have a physical location.
“We toured a number of collegiate programs in the country, a lot of times they just have a room with a coffee pot,” Yura said.
The home represents its name well, featuring peaceful artwork, decorations, and a variety of comfortable seating areas for students to unwind.
“I know it’s hard to walk through our front doors sometimes because you don’t know exactly how you’re going to get greeted,” Yura said. However, she assures that this is a welcoming place of peace and healing.
Serenity Place offers weekly activities to help those in recovery rediscover their old hobbies and create new ones, too. These include events such as a nutrition and cooking class nutrition and cooking classhosted by students from the Olfert Lifestyle Intervention Research Lab. Another activity offered is a weekly meditation sessionthat allows students to clear their minds and emotions.
“The main goal throughout the entire project, for me, is for a student in a particular surrounding—such as a place like WVU where there are lots of bars, drinking, drugs, and overall partying—to know there is a place where they don’t need to be around those things and can instead escape and feel safe,” Joubert said.
Yura explained that one of the toughest challenges about overcoming addiction and drug use is finding something to do to fill the time and void that the addiction left.
After working for WVU for nearly 40 years, Yura has noticed many changes in the community and the drug epidemic at large that instigated a necessity for change.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, in a typical month in 2016, about 60% of full-time college students drank alcohol, and over 20% used an illicit drug.
“With the opioid epidemic and with having so many students over the past few years really having struggled with their substance use disorders, or even, there’s been students who have died, it came to a head that we’ve got to do something. And this is part of the culture change for Morgantown and WVU,” Yura said.
In addition to those who need recovery, members of the community who simply support recovery and recognize it as a necessity are able to find hope coming from this home.
“I think that now that the Serenity Place is an option for students who need help, it gives parents the assurance and confidence that WVU is doing something to make sure their child is safer here,” Joubert said, “They say when you get to college you should be independent and taking care of yourself, but there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of assistance. Especially when it comes to getting out of a bad and dangerous habit.”
Merwis Haidar, the evening and weekend undergraduate manager of the Serenity Place, looks at the home as a space for students to be able to get back on their feet in a motivational and comfortable way.
“I look at it as a structured, great foundational environment where you can really get all the tools you need to help yourself flourish,” Haidar said, “I think this place is somewhere that can help you really brush yourself off and help you get back up.”
Yura finds that many people who come through the Serenity Place feel that support for others and ‘giving back’ is a big part of recovery.
“There are students who have been in recovery for several years, but they really appreciate students who are in early recovery as well as those who have been in recovery for a while,” Yura said, “we also have friends who are just worried about somebody they know, and they just need to come here…and learn from the students in recovery what they can do to make a difference in their lives.”
Haidar also finds that those who are in recovery or support recovery have simply a different outlook on the world and what it means to give back.
“What I’ve noticed is that outside of this place, doing things for friends or people I’m acquainted with, is that everything I do they expect something in return immediately or in the very near future…and here, everything that you receive and everything that we impart and extend out to people—we don’t expect you to give it back to us directly, if at all. We just want to help as much as we can,” Haidar said.
“Knowing there are people in the Serenity Place to help students who need it and help get lives back on track is very rewarding,” said Joubert, “and I’m so grateful that I got to help get that started.”
“You have to be able, in life, even outside of recovery, just to bounce back,” said Haidar, “and this place, here, is basically just a huge trampoline. It’s a very valuable environment in this specific facility.”
Haidar and Yura mutually find an uplifting empowerment between the students and members of the community who spend time at the Serenity Place.
“A tragedy sometimes turns itself into being used in a way to make something happen,” Yura said, which is precisely what brought the Serenity Place to West Virginia University.
https://vimeo.com/256679014– link to Kelson Thorne video
https://vimeo.com/255639044– link to cooking class video
https://vimeo.com/255273743– link to meditation video