Hope Academy graduates join staff as peer specialists

AJ Stinnett and Julia Myers were two of the first students at Hope Academy – the recovery high school supported by Fairbanks – to spend all or most of their high school careers there. Many of the school’s students and alumni don’t or didn’t matriculate there until their junior or senior year, often because they’ve denied the extent of their substance abuse.

“These two really represent what Hope Academy is all about,” Brad Trolson, the school’s recovery coach, said of Stinnett and Myers.

So much so that when they graduated in the spring of 2017, Trolson and Chief Operating Officer Rachelle Gardner began thinking of ways to keep them connected to the school.

“I knew they’d be beneficial to future students – someone they could look up to and help guide them through difficult times,” Trolson said.

Gardner created part-time peer specialist positions for Stinnett and Myers. Their job is to assist Trolson in working individually with students to help keep their recovery on track.

“They have great insight and wonderful understanding of the students and their struggles with substance use, because they’ve been in the same position,” Trolson said.

Myers admits she was concerned going from student to staff member so abruptly would be awkward.

“It’s a complex dynamic, since we just graduated last school year and we’re friends with some of the current students,” she said. “It can be difficult to put friendship in the background and just operate on a professional level, but it’s working well.”

Stinnett felt a certain level of responsibility about Hope Academy even when he was a student.

“This is like my home, so the transition to being a staff member has been easy,” he said.

Myers sees much of herself in the current students.

“I often think, I was there. I know those feelings,” she said. “Sometimes it’s like a mirror, sometimes a portal to the past. In fact a lot of what the students are going through I’m still working through. So it’s inspiring to see people I work with succeed with things I’m still working on.”

That’s what Trolson had in mind when devising a way to keep Myers and Stinnett at Hope Academy. He knows he can connect to the students only so much – and not in a way that a peer who was a student there can.

Trolson was seeing signs early in the school year that the peer specialist program was working. He witnessed a student thank Stinnett for helping her navigate the travails of her recovery despite not always being the nicest person toward him.

“As an adult, I’m not as relatable as someone who’s been a student here, who’s been frustrated with teachers and the rules,” Trolson said. “So the fact AJ can reach out to her and be understanding and compassionate is a pretty powerful thing. He and Julia have the skills to do that.”

Stinnett confesses to having bad days too.

“I’m a big-hearted person who really cares about every student here,” he said. “So sometimes I leave here feeling defeated or upset about something. That’s when I know I need to do something I’m neglecting, like go to a meeting or talk to other people in recovery.

“But at the same time, being here also gives a lot of power to my recovery. This is where I got my wings and took off. I feel empowered by the students and staff.”

Myers also thinks being a peer specialist has positively impacted her recovery.

“It’s incredible to share my experience,” she said. “Not only does it help them, it helps me. To interact with people who are struggling but also succeeding – even when it hurts to see someone fall, it’s still more worthwhile to see them get back up. And watching students have epiphanies has been one of my most joyful experiences. It keeps me going.”

One of Trolson’s hopes for the peer specialist program is that it would be as beneficial to them as it is for the students.

“I hope this is a powerful next step for them in their own lives,” he said. “I can’t do this forever, so I see them moving into a position like this to help future generations.”