When you first meet Shelly Dutch, you’d better be wearing a good pair of shoes. If she’s not counseling clients in an individual, family or group session, she’s probably moving. Tom Farley, who heads The Chris Farley Foundation, describes her as “one of the most dynamic people in teen counseling in Madison, if not the whole state of Wisconsin.” One of her staff members, Cory Divine, states that Dutch is “a powerhouse of energy and conviction.”
A survivor of sexual abuse and cocaine addiction, Dutch has remained drug-free for over 20 years and uses her personal experience to ignite cutting-edge programs in AODA (alcohol and other drug abuse) counseling that are producing unprecedented results, particularly a mentorship program that relies on seasoned members of the recovery community to guide those new to recovery through its challenges and hazards.
“The opportunity to witness our clients going from hopeless to hopeful is the greatest gift I experience,” she says. Not only is Dutch the creator and director of Connections Counseling in Madison, she also helped create Horizon High School, where students with drug and alcohol problems can work at recovery while they achieve their high school diploma. Then there is Aaron House. Dutch helped create the structured sober-living house on the UW-Madison campus, voted the No. 1 party school in America by the Princeton Review in 2006.
The house is named after Aaron Meyer, a young man who had achieved recovery at Connections Counseling and was tragically killed in a car accident (which had no drug or alcohol involvement) in 2005. She organizes panels that visit schools across the state, educating young people about drug and alcohol abuse. UW medical school residents visit her clinic to learn about AODA counseling.
Fighting for their livesIn short, Dutch is ferociously involved in saving the lives of young people who struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol. “Providing a strength-based experience to each individual allows a safe and nurturing environment, which allows clients to believe in themselves and honor their recovery process,” she says.
Dutch provides a tour of the clinic, setting down a binder here and replenishing a stack of leaflets there. She rattles off rapid-fire facts and figures about addiction and what Connections is doing about it. The only time she is silent is when she passes a portion of hallway with photos of young people that have a birth date and death date. Her hand moves toward the wall without an apparent conscious thought. As she walks, her fingers slide against the wall photos as if she is attempting to reach into past counseling sessions that were not enough to save these young people from the grip of addiction and its consequences. In her sudden silence it becomes clear: What happens in these halls is deathly serious.
One of her most effective counseling creations is the mentorship program. Those who maintain sobriety for 90 days are offered the chance to mentor other clients who aren’t as far along in the recovery process. Daily sober activities are scheduled, so there is always something fun for clients to do. Taking on the role of mentor invests in others and provides a further incentive for maintaining one’s own recovery. It inspires a palpable sense of camaraderie and collective support.
“To witness individuals feeling alone, fearful and hopeless begin to trust, share and connect with others is an exciting transformation,” Dutch says.
In addition, “we have emerged as the specialists in the treatment and support of college- aged students,” says Dutch. In May 2008, she opened a satellite clinic on the UW-Madison campus, known for its insatiable appetite for inebriation. This peer network is a strong support for young people who are often deluged and battered by the idea that alcohol and drug use are prerequisites for adulthood during their first tastes of independence. “The College Connection” provides an alcohol- and drug-free culture for those who seek a sober social scene.
One client remarked, “When I was drinking I might have made fun of some of these activities. Now, I am amazed to find how enriched I am by them, by the connections that I’ve made here. I have come to love sobriety. My conception of reality has been blown out of the water. I’m so thankful I’m not the person I was six months ago.”
Dutch is making an immense impact. Her own experience with addiction doesn’t allow her to be ineffective and doesn’t rest with the status quo. The testimonies of those fighting for their lives contend: They would want no other in their corner than Shelly Dutch.