Jessica Gurwin leaves teaching for the front lines of the opioid epidemic

When you hear the passion in Jessica Gurwin's voice as she discusses the work she does on the front lines of the opioid epidemic with Positive Recovery Solutions, it's easy to reach the conclusion that this is more than a job for Gurwin, it's a calling.

The thing is, when her friends in western Pennsylvania who operate Positive Recovery Solutions (PRS) first approached Gurwin in 2014 with an offer to help bring its services to Ohio, Gurwin thought she already knew her calling, and she was doing it, teaching for Columbus City Schools at Champion Middle School in the King-Lincoln District.

“[When I got certified in 2012], I was dead set that I was going to teach in Columbus City Schools. And I did it, I was good at it and I loved it,” Gurwin said in an interview at a Clintonville coffee shop. “I was working with the kids I wanted to work with. Those East Side kids, I love their grit. I love their humor. I fit in there.”

Following two years of massive growth, PRS again approached Gurwin about joining. By that time, she had grown increasingly disenchanted with the field of education. “You're being constantly scrutinized over test scores when you have students who aren't eating,” she said. Increasing resistance to the kind of support she wanted to be able to offer her kids, coupled with national developments such as the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, found Gurwin a little more receptive.

“I needed Jessica. She's outgoing and charismatic, but she's also lived it,” said Positive Recovery Solutions Chief Operating Officer Amanda Cope.

Gurwin herself struggled for years with addiction. Before earning her degree in education and moving to Columbus, she had dropped out of Kent State University and struggled not just with addiction, but things that often accompany it, such as health issues and homelessness. She knew firsthand the pitfalls of recovery. She also had no interest in becoming a drug counselor, having grown up in a family in which both parents were social workers, nor did she want to be, as she called it, “the face of recovery.”

“I want people engaged, people who are on the same journey and who are passionate about recovery,” Cope said. “I finally convinced her to shadow me and to witness some patient testimonies.”

“I was taken aback by the lives they were saving and their approach to the whole situation, the fact that it was collaborative and not competitive,” Gurwin said. “I decided I was willing to take the chance because this [opioid] epidemic is devastating and I have an opportunity to do something about it.”

Gurwin resigned from teaching following the 2016-17 school year, but not without practical and philosophical concerns. She admitted the security of a pension and good insurance that come with a government job was difficult to give up. But those weren't the toughest things she would lose.

“I had real grief over losing those kids,” Gurwin said. “And it was a learning experience about how much I value myself based off my profession. There was a lot of reflection. I think so much of my grief was from the kids, but also that I have attached my self-worth, my image, my whole life to a profession. I am so much more than that.”

She also had as an example some friends and her husband, Joey, of people who had left their “real” jobs for careers that were less traditional or to work for themselves.

“I guess both of us … are not completely averse to taking risks,” said Joey Gurwin, who owns and operates Oranjudio Recording. “The safest choice doesn't always result in the most growth. But I wanted it to be fully her decision.”

“People did a really good job of not telling me what to do,” Jessica joked, adding that this was “the first time I really went away from practicality.”

“She's always been very active as an advocate for the recovering community. I honestly think she would have continued in that arena no matter what her job was,” Joey Gurwin said. “She has always primarily gone where she could help people, whether kids in urban and unrepresented areas or with the stigma that comes with the current opiate epidemic.”

Jessica agreed that this work is a continuation of the same passion to help people that led her to teaching, but that, in making this change, she is “building … something that's all me, that's helping people that I know.”

“I almost see it as finally pursuing the thing I was always supposed to do,” she said. “We're going to cure the opioid epidemic.”