Normalizing the conversation
ROCovery Fitness channels the power of shared experience to support people in recovery and change the way the public views addiction
Left to right: Keirstan Saltsman, Jonathan Westfall, Christopher Salvatore, Chelsea Kehrli, and Yana Khashper
ROCovery started with a hike. “Two-thousand-fifteen was a really cold winter,” says Yana Khashper, CEO and founder of ROCovery Fitness. “Sean and I were just cooped up in our apartment, and our recovery was slipping backwards. We knew we were headed to a return of use, because we’d been there before.” Determined to stay on the right track, she and partner Sean Smith turned to social media. “We posted something like, ‘open invite—we’re going hiking at Tryon Park on Sunday,’” Khashper laughs. “And we had ten people show up, which was really cool because they weren’t our close friends; they were all acquaintances.” The group was a diverse mix, Khashper says—and mostly people in recovery. “We had such a great time. We were all joking, laughing, and connecting, and someone asked if we could do it again next weekend.”
They did do it again the next weekend, and many after that. Four years later, ROCovery Fitness has touched 3,600 lives and maintains more than 2,000 active members. In 2017, the nonprofit opened a sober clubhouse and wellness center where it hosts yoga classes, group workouts, games, a library, and “an overall nurturing place to come and just be,” Khashper stresses. “And we usually have unhealthy snacks.” Local off-site events include hiking, bike rides, and—the most popular outing—kayaking on the Genesee River. “We work with Genesee Waterways, another nonprofit,” Khashper explains. “They do a lot of things with adaptive sports and folks with disabilities, so they’ve been a really great partner.” The group hikes frequent local parks like Tryon, Seneca, and Maplewood, as well as longer drives like Stony Brook, Letchworth, High Tor, and New Paltz. “There are just so many parks; I think that’s what is so wonderful about Monroe County,” Khashper says. “People who live here don’t necessarily know about all the offerings and all the beauty.”
ROCovery’s fitness-meets-community approach hits a critical aspect of the recovery process. “Research shows that exercise of any kind is good for recovery,” Khashper, a licensed social worker, explains. “But specifically group activity—shared experience—is a strong predictor of long-term recovery, easing of withdrawal symptoms, and a feeling of connection to community.” Sober fun, she says, is a very new concept to people in overcoming addiction. “When I first entered recovery, I thought I would never find purpose again,” she says. “That I would sort of just never have fun anymore. I didn’t have any hope, but I didn’t want to continue hurting those around me.” Khashper imagined the rest of her life as a sort of celibacy, revolving around avoiding destructive behavior as opposed to working toward something meaningful. “I really came alive once I met Sean in 2013, and he opened my world up to the outdoors and exercise.” Khashper, who hadn’t developed any hobbies or healthy coping skills prior to starting recovery, found herself excited again about her life and her future. “It was an entry point from which I continued to develop more coping skills and more healthy habits. I really fell in love with it, and it’s been a huge part of my recovery.”
This shift in perspective—from one of avoidance to deliberate living—hinges on the way we talk about addiction and recovery. “Our words have so much power,” Khashper says. “When I talk about my recovery, if I say the word ‘addict,’ and identify as an ‘addict,’ that in and of itself can bring a certain kind of image. Versus, if I say I’m an individual in recovery. The same with saying ‘relapse’ as opposed to ‘recurrence’ or ‘return to use.’” These small nuances add up, she says, and start to shift not only the self-image of people in recovery, but the public’s perception, as well. “It’s important to use positive, strength-based language as opposed to exacerbating those old ideas. Things like ‘junkie,’ showing needles in media ads … those are just not things that strengthen recovery,” she says. “They don’t improve perception or shatter stigma.” Khashper says before she started ROCovery, she doesn’t remember people talking about their experiences with addiction, let alone a productive public conversation. “When you see addiction in the news and newspapers, it’s generally not in a positive light. But we’re helping to start normalizing that conversation. It’s huge to shift focus to the gifts and hope of recovery.”
While treatment court views the organization as a site that meets legal requirements, ROCovery doesn’t operate in a clinical capacity. “We take away some of the power struggles or hierarchies associated with clinical settings and bring it down to the basics of human connection,” Khashper explains. “It’s more about filling that gap—when folks enter recovery, there are mutual-aid groups and there’s treatment, but then there’s all of this time,” she emphasizes. “All this time that was formerly spent drinking or using.” That time gap, Khashper explains, is when the trouble starts. “Return to use isn’t necessarily happening when they’re sitting in a group or treatment program, but when they go back to environments that probably don’t have sober, healthy friends and outlets. That’s where we come in.”
Thousands of Rochesterians have found hope and discovered sober fun through ROCovery’s model. Opening the clubhouse was a big turning point for the organization, which now employs nine people—and as a peer-led organization, that means most staff have a lived experience with recovery. After such rapid growth in Rochester alone, ROCovery expanded its programs to two more regions. “The Southern Tier is an area where addiction is not as openly talked about as Rochester or some of the bigger cities,” Khashper says, and explains they’re working with kids at local high schools who have been flagged, “who either got suspended, in trouble for substance use, or got flagged through family.” The program functions as an alternative for suspension and already has a waitlist. Even more recently, ROCovery expanded its services to Watertown—primarily due to Fort Drum. “There’s a lot of military there, and that’s a population we really hope to focus on some more. It’s a population that definitely needs more recovery support.” The first Watertown hike was hosted in October 2019 with a turnout of nearly thirty people.
Some of ROCovery’s biggest trips are quarterly excursions to the Adirondacks. “The power of being on a mountain is almost a parallel process to recovery,” Khashper says. “Because when you’re hiking up a mountain, there will come a point where you just get so tired. And you don’t want to go anymore; your body hurts; you’ve been doing it for hours, and you’ve had enough. It’s similar to recovery, because there will come a point where you’re hurting and you’ve had enough and don’t want to keep going, but there’s a community there that’s going to hold and support you and carry you along.”
John Ernst is a writer and graphic designer based in Rochester and (585)’s editor-at-large.