A strong, selfless advocate for those in recovery

In the field of addiction and recovery, some people work at the ground level, interacting directly with people who are struggling with addiction or in the recovery process. Others approach the issue from a policy perspective, working to influence lawmakers.

As the executive director of Ohio Citizen Advocates for Addiction Recovery (OCAAR), Sarah Thompson does both. “I work at the state level and at the local level to advocate for increased access to services, and advocate for whatever it might be that people in recovery need, and to help people to get into recovery,” Thompson said. “But in order to develop comprehensive solutions, people in recovery need to be at the table. So we help to empower people in recovery to share their story for effective change. … We help motivate them to go into the legislature and testify, to meet with politicians in their community and talk about what helped them get sober.”

The 28-year-old Hilliard native took over for the founder of OCAAR at the end of 2015. If you didn't previously know her name, she's OK with that.

“It's never about Sarah. It's always about what's best for the whole,” said Jessica Gurwin, a friend and colleague who works at Positive Recovery Solutions. “As a leader, that's rare, and it's also the best way to go about things. You have to be a good listener to be a good leader, and that's exactly what she is. … She doesn't run a treatment center. She's not in office. She is at the ground level as an advocate and voice for people who don't have one.”

In addition to running OCAAR (and coaching lacrosse at Hilliard-Davidson High School), Thompson has been working as a consultant for UNBar, a nonprofit recovery community center on Parsons Avenue that emphasizes four pillars: community, health and fitness, service, and creative expression.

“A lot of the policies we create are geared toward that first step of getting people sober. But we need to keep people sober,” Thompson said. “We have almost a 70 percent relapse rate in this country, which is insane. So many people are being cycled back through the system because we can't keep them well.”

People in recovery are often told to change the people, places and things they interacted with previously, Thompson said, but once they do that, they don't know what to do or where to go. “When people walk alongside each other in this space, that's when the stigma gets broken down, because you're with somebody else who's just like you and experiencing the same things,” she said. “I can work on policies and help increase access to care, but for me, the solution truly does lie in community. If the community doesn't support each other, all the stuff we do at the Statehouse isn't going to matter. That's what we try to build on a local level.”

That emphasis on community carries over into Thompson's work with OCAAR. “The first step is sharing stories, but for us, it's also action,” she said. “It's not just sharing that story, but sharing that I also volunteer on the weekends and I give back — I clean up my community. When people can see that people in recovery are doing amazing things, that's when that mind shift happens.”

Thompson's line of work also puts her on the front lines of the opiate epidemic, but to Thompson, who has personal experience with recovery, the current crisis is about more than opiates.

“It's not about the substance. It's the addiction,” she said. “We can't just address opiates, because eventually that's going to go away. If we don't create comprehensive solutions for addiction, then we're not going to solve anything.”