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Using Data to Enhance the Journey of Recovery: A Conversation with Young People in Recovery

Posted byWritten by David

“What you don’t count, you can’t see,” says Ann Herbst, Executive Director of Young People in Recovery, a leading national nonprofit dedicated to the wellbeing of young adults recovering from substance addiction. Composed of 54 chapters in 19 states nationwide, Young People in Recovery (YPR) hosts various events and programs, including weekly All Recovery Meetings and monthly Pro-Social Activities, to name a few.

With a mission to equip young adults with necessary life skills and peer supports, YPR previously faced challenges in evaluating the effectiveness of their varied programs spread across the country. When activities range from a weekly game of Ultimate Frisbee in Louisville, KY, to passionate advocacy work, Ann describes it as comparing “apples to asparagus.”

Ann continued, “If people don’t tell you something’s happening, you don’t know whether it’s happening or not. What we’re talking about is improved health and wellness and helping people reach their goals in recovery, whatever those may be to them, and to measure actual life skills, which is what we say we want to help you with.”

Jessica Elgin, Vice President of Programs, joined YPR in 2022 and soon noticed how participant feedback suggested that previous tools felt invasive as well as failed to provide a comprehensive picture of how YPR influenced participants’ recovery. This realization paved the way for a partnership with Commonly Well and the integration of the Recovery Capital Index (RCI). With the RCI and Commonly Well, YPR found a tool and support that aligned with their curriculum, giving them a clearer picture of their impact in the lives of participants.

Jessica highlights the holistic approach that YPR takes. Modules on education, employment, and holistic health are all metrics that the RCI measures, thus ensuring a better representation of the influence YPR has.

Ann stresses the importance of rRecovery capital as a practice, highlighting its multifaceted dimensions: cultural, social, and personal capital. These, she says, can act as protective factors against problematic substance use. Engaging young people in positive activities ranging from arts and sports to community service not only builds their recovery capital but ensures they maintain a life free of substance misuse.

While data collection efforts have seen positive strides, especially with the personal support of Commonly Well in tackling the technology, a culture shift is required. As Ann says, “Data collection is culture change.”

Ann sums up their mission and how Commonly Well supports them in the work: “The Commonly Well team has been incredibly helpful, and we never felt like we were a number. We always felt like our organization’s needs, our clients’ needs were at the top of the list.” 

With YPR’s focus on moving people to a place of thriving, Commonly Well helps them to measure if what they are doing is helping. Because the RCI measures the various life skills YPR assists with, they are positioned to do better. Ann and Jessica emphasize the importance of learning from the data. Understanding which chapters or activities lead to more significant improvements can lead to a broader implementation of successful strategies. 

As YPR continues its work, the increased utilization of the RCI promises to provide a more grounded, human-centered, and data-driven approach, ensuring that the path to recovery for young people is not just about staying sober but truly thriving.

Possible LinkedIn Post:

Before collaborating with Commonly Well, YPR struggled to holistically assess the impact of their programs on individual participants. The Recovery Capital Index allowed them to measure improvement across various domains, focusing on life skills, health, and wellness metrics rather than just sobriety. 

Read more about Young People in Recovery here.

Transcript: August 21, 2023

Ann Herbst:

I’m Anne Herbst, Executive Director of Young People in Recovery.


My name is Jessica Elgin. I’m the Vice President of Programs for Young People in Recovery.

Ann Herbst:

Yes, so Young People in Recovery is a national nonprofit that supports youth and young adults in recovery from drugs and alcohol. And by young people, we loosely define that as under age 30, but we have people of all ages and recovery allies of families, friends, you know, other coworkers of people who are in recovery too. All are welcome at YPR. Our vision is a world where all young people have the resources they need to thrive in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol. And our mission is to provide the life skills and peer supports to help young people recover from substance use disorder and reach their full potential.


Yeah, so I joined YPR in July of 2022, and it didn’t take me long to identify that we could do better with our participant data. So I had been doing some research and seeing what resources there were out there. And then in October of 2022, my colleague and I were taping it, Faces and Voices in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Commonly Well was there. And we… We were able to get things moving very quickly after that.

Ann Herbst:

Maybe Jessica, i’ll take the first half of that question and then i’ll pass you the baton for the second half. So young people in recovery has 54 chapters in 19 states nationwide and they do a variety of things including weekly all recovery meetings, monthly pro-social activities. So youth and young adults have an opportunity to meet an alternative peer group that supports there. Recovery and advocacy events, all kinds of community-based workshops focusing on life skills. We have curriculums that are implemented nationwide for a variety of populations that are like formal curriculum programs that have a duration of many weeks and in fact months. So we had a problem, which is how do you assess the impact that young people in recovery is on perhaps a chapter participant who shows up every Thursday for Ultimate Frisbee in Louisville, Kentucky, but really isn’t interested in the life skill curriculum programs, hasn’t ever gotten involved with any of the advocacy events, but really just loves showing up weekly and that’s their community and that’s their rock and that’s a really important part of their recovery is that Thursday night Ultimate Frisbee structured life skills curriculum program. Then you might have somebody else someplace else who’s been getting involved with trying to pass legislation in their community that impacts youth and young adults in recovery. Those are all really different activities, but we know that they’re important to each of the people who are doing them. And we know that they care deeply about these projects and that it’s impacting their recovery. But how do you measure it when you’re really not even to oranges, but it’s like apples to asparagus. So that’s where the idea of Recovery Capital Index came in. So Jessica, I’m now officially handing you the talking stick. So take it away.


Thanks, Anne. We’ve been collecting, to my knowledge, participant data for our programs since 2016. Those tools that were being used, we had the feedback that they were very invasive. And also based on the results that we’ve been able to put together, it wasn’t very accurate in really describing what YPR does and how it Impacted That participant. So that’s Where RCI Comes in, especially in the Program participant level, is that our program information and the curriculum Is Very well aligned with what RCI measures. And so there’s going to be a much More Direct Comparison to how our curriculum impacts the recovery journey and sustainability for that person. And then with our chapter participants, we were not collecting chapter participant information in any way other than we were recording The activities that were being held, the events, which are all different kinds, and then how many participants were there. Not in any way looking at what did the participant gain from that interaction and in the long term how does that impact their recovery.


I’d say that all aspects of our curriculum align naturally with what’s being measured in RCI. We have different modules, including education, employment, holistic health, and all of them are measured within the RCI. I’m pulling up all of our curriculum right here, but the main point is that, the foundation of what we’ve been providing is measured by what RCI measures. And so it’s a much more accurate representation of how the information impacts that individual.

Ann Herbst:

Well, I would also add that what I find really interesting about the RCI and about recovery capital in general is that when you think about, particularly for youth and young adults, factors that are protective factors that we know that youth and young adults who have very robust activity in these areas like cultural capital, social capital, spiritual capital, community and purpose as our friends at the substance abuse mental health services administration would call it, those four pillars of recovery. Those are also protective factors so that people don’t develop problematic substance use. If, you know, that’s why we talk about pro-social activities. We know what anti-social activities look like, but if you engage young people with, you know, arts, sports, church groups, friends, families, pets, help doing service, you know, helping a neighbor, getting involved with school, getting involved with extracurriculars, having a job, doing things where they’re really, where they have that social, personal, and cultural capital, making strides and hitting milestones in their education. Those are things that are going to typically keep them away from problematic substance use. So it’s not really that surprising when you think about it if you’ve got young people of any age who do have substance use disorders, that you can identify that they have deficits or weaknesses or just, you know, they’re missing some activities in those areas. And by strengthening their personal, social, and cultural capital, they will be able to avoid having reoccurrences of use and having problematic substance use. So it’s really like that seesaw, you know, you’re just trying to get it in balance a little bit more rather than have… One side just at the bottom.


So I feel like we’re at a point right now in using RCI, where our data, our RCI data, the scores from surveys that people are using, we’re not really at a point where we can say, we don’t have enough, and we don’t have the long-term collected yet, it really come up with some really concrete findings. But something that I found very interesting that I think is gonna help us in the long run is that around January or February, there was a dip in our overall scores. And in a conversation with David, I found that mirrored a dip that was found in system-wide participant scores. And I think that’s a really great opportunity to have conversation of what’s going on nationally in order to identify any potential things that are happening that we can help our participants with.

Ann Herbst:

If I can just give a framework maybe before Jessica gets into the tail, sorry to cut you off, I know you were about to say something Jessica, but just to give a big picture about YPR, it’s not only that we are a national organization that we have lots of different programs and chapters and participants in different states, different time zones, everywhere. We also have different kinds of chapters. Some of our chapters are led by paid program staff where we’ve gotten grants. From different funders or agencies, state behavioral health organizations, for example, where we have the people who are in charge of our chapters be paid staff members full or part-time. Then we have volunteer-led chapters. So these are people who are giving of themselves their time. You know, they may be extremely busy in school and jobs, dealing with stuff with their families. So, you know, asking somebody who’s working nine to five day that you are paying them to work versus a volunteer who is fitting this in whenever they can out of you know the goodness of their heart and their passion for this mission are really different asks. So you know and some and of course some constituents don’t have smartphones these are people in early recovery you know they may be just coming out of correctional institutions they may be in treatment in some cases in some kind of like outpatient or step they don’t have access to all their devices, even if they have a smartphone, they’re not allowed to keep it with them all the time for a variety of reasons. So that’s also a sort of a patchwork quilt of who we’re trying to collect data from, which makes it even more tricky.


I’d add to that luckily with the support of Commonly Well, we’ve been able to get around that barrier of people not having access to a cell phone. We can do that in other ways. So that’s been really Helpful In Our Program Participants That Are coming out of incarceration specifically. Our current Barrier that I’m working diligently on. Is, as Anne said, getting our chapter leads to use RCI and offer it to our participants. So we’re building up Those Habits and the Practice of using it. One way that we’ve been able to assist with that is by creating resources and screen shares that will give the person the keyword And making sure that they have their QR Codes To help mitigate any of those small barriers for a participant if there’s a misspelling or anything Like That In the keyword. And I would also say that on the national level creating an opportunity to put Out The put out the RCI survey in a broadcast to remind our participants has been helpful. We’ve been able to get more participation in that. And not just have to rely on our chapter leads to remember and remind their participants to fill that out.

Ann Herbst:

Yeah, well, you know, we, what you don’t count, you can’t see. If people don’t tell you something’s happening, you don’t know whether it’s happening or not. So being able to measure improvement across multiple domains that really focuses on, you know, we are an organization that supports the many pathways to recovery. So we don’t talk about sobriety. We don’t talk about so-called clean time. You know, we’re talking about improved health and wellness and helping people reach their goals in recovery, whatever those may be to them, which could look very able to measure actual life skills, which is what we say we want to help you with. You know, if somebody is coming to YPR because they want a new social network that supports their health and wellness as they are in recovery, we want to be able to provide that for them. If somebody’s coming to us saying, I don’t know how to talk to my parents about my recovery, I don’t know how to, I’m going on job interviews, I don’t know what to say, where have I been? Know, they’re looking at my resume, they can see I graduated school in this year, but now it’s that year and I look a certain age. So where have I been? And, you know, it’s been jail or on the streets or I don’t know how to talk about this. Um, all of the things that we help people with at YPR are things that the recovery capital index measures. It’s not about filling out a 250 point survey that is, you know, checking boxes that’s asking questions. That don’t pertain to what we do. You know, clinical assessments aren’t really relevant to us because we’re not treatment, you know, we’re that recovery support services that, you know, that’s the sort of term of art that supports what we do. So it is, and it’s relatively new. It’s also, I sort of sometimes have to remind myself that this is still pretty new territory. To look at this in binary terms, you are either sober or you weren’t and that was success or that was failure and that is not working for a lot of people young and young at heart. So, you know, to have a tool that really allows us to dig into where they’re at with these different metrics that are what we want to help them with is game changing for us. So we are super excited about it. And, you know, I know that we’re going to just continue and it is data collection is a culture change. From when you just go to everybody’s fine, everybody’s doing great, you know, just keep coming back. That’s great. We want people to keep coming back, but we also need to count them. We also need to see who they are, get demographic information, know where they are, know what kind of event they went to. And what did it and did it matter? You know, in the end is what we’re doing helping. And if we can’t answer that concretely, at this point, you know, that’s not okay. We need to do better. This is a tool that’s gonna help us do better.


Patrick, it also allows us to Ensure that we are providing quality evidence-based practices for our participants. For instance, we can see When we get there And Have enough data, is this particular Chapter Having Increased scores? What are they doing that’s Helping them reach these Levels that maybe Other Chapters aren’t? And How can we kind of dissect That And impart those Features Into Other chapters?

Ann Herbst:

Yes, and Any and even get really granular in terms of are there certain activities that we do organization wide that seem to be having a greater impact than other activities that we’re doing because we want to do more of those of the ones that help and the less of the ones that you know fewer of the ones that don’t seem to be making such an impact is there a chapter lead in location a that is that all their participants are getting these extraordinary Improvements you know what’s something that we can bring to scale. You know, what are their best practices that are having these fantastic outcomes. So it’s a way of learning about ourselves too, and improvement.

Ann Herbst:

Well, I would say that also that, you know, the Commonly Well team has been incredibly helpful and just really, we never felt like we were a number. We always felt like our organization’s needs, our clients’ needs were at the top of the list. That making it a tool that would work and be effective and be appropriate for us was the top concern for everybody at the organization. And it really couldn’t have been further from cookie cutter than I don’t know what. It was very customized. It was very dialed into our needs. And we continue to sort of learn about that and grow and anything that we’ve ever asked for, can we do this? Could it be this? Could it look like that? Could we ask this question? Could we take that question out? The answer has always been yes. Really, really appreciate. Because this is new for us too, and we’ve never done anything like this before. So like making sure that it feels right for our organization and that it’s not just some one size fits all has been part of why I think this partnership has been so successful.

“It’s not really that surprising when you think about it, that if you’ve got young people of any age who do have a substance use disorder, that you can identify deficits or weaknesses or that they’re missing some activities in those areas. And by strengthening their personal, social, and cultural capital, they will be able to avoid having reoccurrences of use and having problematic substance use.”

“What you don’t count, you can’t see. If people don’t tell you something’s happening, you don’t know whether it’s happening or not. What we’re talking about is improved health and wellness and helping people reach their goals in recovery, whatever those may be to them, and to measure actual life skills, which is what we say we want to help you with.”

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