Walsh leaves heartwarming legacy at Turning Point

By Makayla-Courtney McGeeney mmcgeeney@benningtonbanner.com

BENNINGTON—Putting heart in the operation is what Turning Point director Joan Walsh will be remembered for.

She's retiring from the recovery center in Bennington after six years. A dinner celebrating her accomplishments was held on Tuesday night at the Old First Church Barn. Dignitaries such as state representatives for Bennington Mary Morrissey and Dick Sears attended as well as various community members.

Volunteer Ken Sigsbury will take Walsh's place.

"I tell people that the first month [of retirement] is mine," Walsh said. "Then, I'll think about what's next."

Walsh's retirement cake read "Thank you for making a difference in our lives and putting a heart in Turning Point." The director recounts her first days at the center as a volunteer and the bad reputation it had.

She went from a volunteer to a volunteer coordinator and then eventually worked as the director. To her knowledge, she's been the longest standing director. Sue Juliano was the director at Turning Point when Walsh got involved.

On Tuesday evening a slideshow with newspaper articles was revealed at the retirement dinner. Each one headlined all of the center's advancements under Walsh's direction.

They include the Annual Recovery Walk and film screenings in September for National Recovery Month, a candlelight vigil at the Town Offices to honor those who lost their battle with alcohol and substance abuse addiction, a picnic in April for the recovery community, and more.

"I started improving its image in the community by improving what's inside," Walsh said about bettering the center when she started. "This place is built on volunteers. It's a well-kept secret in a lot of ways. There's so much it offers to all walks of life."

Walsh said many people in the community didn't know what the center was, what its purpose was or where it was and her focus was "on turning it around."

However, she said her most important mission was raising awareness about addiction as an illness and the value of recovery. She compared it to breaking a leg and learning how to walk on it again. People in recovery need to relearn the basic skills of life without drugs or alcohol, she said.

"You never hear about recovery," she said. "It's something that's ongoing. You hear about prevention and treatment. Treatment ends. Recovery is a lifelong process. We're all in recovery in our own way. I call it a journey inward. We're all in it together."

Turning Point has about a dozen regular volunteers. Some are in recovery or have recovered from addiction. Walsh noted that being a volunteer at a recovery center helps in that journey to a sober life. She compared it to a cancer patient in recovery who connects with another survivor immediately versus trying to connect with someone who hasn't experienced the same things.

"What people don't realize is that this is a peer-to-peer organization," she said. "All services are free. It's a safe place for people in recovery."

Walsh got into the drug and alcohol counseling field as a family member of an alcoholic. She wishes to continue to advocate for family support groups. Again, she mentioned family members going through a cancer tragedy and how there's awareness of cancer support groups.

"I have a passion for recovery," she said. "People say to me that it's warm when they [enter the center]. I tried to make it seem like a home, not an office."

She explained that she didn't realize the impact she had on people until the retirement dinner when people told her just that.

Turning Point Recovery Center sees roughly 700 visitors per month, Walsh estimated. Its Facebook page states that it helps "people find, maintain, and enhance their recovery experience through peer support and substance free recreational and educational opportunities." It's one of 11 centers throughout Vermont.

Reach staff writer Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471 or @MC_McGeeney.