Staff Spotlight: Ricky Hill, Armani Jè Balderas and the Dynamics of Telehealth

Rise Recovery’s Ricky Hill, Youth and Telehealth Program Manager, and Armani Jè Balderas, Telehealth Youth Peer Recovery Coach, sat down to talk about the importance of telehealth peer recovery, giving back to the recovery community, and what legacy of telehealth can have at Rise Recovery!

So, tell me about yourself and what you do at Rise Recovery

Armani: I have been with Rise Recovery for about 8 months now, and I am the telehealth peer recovery coach. I work with the youth and provide services for our youth through telehealth program. I am also one of the Spanish language family counselors.

Ricky: I’ve been here about 10 months I’m the YRCC, Youth & Telehealth Manager so I oversee all telehealth operations, everything with our YRCC (Youth Recovery Community Center) and APG (Alternative Peer Group.) I’m also a Spanish language youth and family counselor.

So, let’s talk a little bit about Telehealth; what do y’all think makes Telehealth so unique to RR?

R: I think the unique part about telehealth is that we do everything that our in-person services provide. Everything from one-on-one counseling, group sessions, social activities, and even the family support groups, but we’re able to reach communities that normally wouldn’t have access to these resources. I Which definitely would’ve been something vital for me as a teenager because I came from that type of environment. So, it’s cool that we get to reach to those kids that need the help. They just don’t know where to get it.

A: The thing that makes telehealth unique for me, and what I’ve seen, is the fact that we provide that barrier-free service. We have that ability to reach people who may not have vehicles, people who may not have the opportunity or the resources to actually go out to the resources that are out there right now. We bring those resources to them. That’s the important thing; that we’re here to bring everything that they need so that there’s a “no-excuse” kind of thing. In addition, through telehealth we can reach a whole lot more people. As of September 1st, we just got funding to go statewide so we’re not restricted to only certain counties anymore. Our wings are expanding, and we’re able to reach more and more people.

Left to right: Armani Jè Balderas and Ricky Hill

From my understanding y’all our working on giving your youth participants in Telehealth resources that they can take back to their community?

R:  So recently we’ve been doing a lot of educational presentations on subjects like fentanyl, which has been really impacting a lot of communities. So even if a kid is not struggling with substance use, the fact that we get to present to so many students that once, they have the education in prevention. They have that awareness of what may not be going on currently in their community, but the possibility of what could happen. So, they have that as a cautionary tale to go by.

A: To piggyback off what Ricky was saying, you know, providing that education for me, I know would have helped me a lot when I was in school. And basically, we’re kind of putting a dent in that school to prison pipeline because, when they get in trouble, it’s just a constant cycle. It’s like they get in trouble, they go, they go to an AEP (Alternative Education Program), you know, and then AEP all over again. And then by the time they, go to juvenile probation or they go to regular probation, because they’re not being given the education on – about fentanyl, on the different drugs, on how the drugs can affect your family, things like that. So, we provide that that that education to try to put a dent and to try to prevent, more cases.

Can you talk a little bit about the importance of giving back as a community especially as individuals in recovery?

A:  I’ve always been a very giving person. I’ve always been someone who, warms my heart on my sleeve., If you can see it, it’s there. But especially when it comes to the work that we do and recovery, there’s a saying in recovery: we can only keep what we have by giving it away. The more we give away, the more we get. So, you know the saying the only way to receive blessings is to give blessings, that is how I that is how I see this program. With every child that I talked to, with every participant that I talked with, every family member that I talked to, I’m giving them a little bit of hope that there is something better. I’m giving them that option to choose something other than the path that they were going down. And the entire organization, whether they are in recovery or, they have somebody going through recovery or they’re going through some sort of 12 step program has that love and dedication for these participants. And That’s something that is just so amazing and something that me personally, in my almost 40 years of existence, I have never seen in any other organization. So, I think that’s what sets us apart. And the beauty of this organization is that it gives resources that are absolutely 100% necessary everywhere. And that we provide those services with love, compassion and caring. So that’s how I see the things that we do.

R: The biggest way I give back is giving these kids something that I never had. My journey with substance use started at 15, and it was on and off throughout high school. But regardless, I’m pretty sure my life would have turned out a lot differently had I had resources like Telehealth because where I come from, there is no such thing as recovery. There is no such thing as freedom from substance use. So, to be able to, to give these kids something that otherwise they wouldn’t be aware of. Giving them a voice because like it’s been said in a lot of and especially in the education system, children are better seen rather than heard.  That’s definitely the barrier that we try to break on a daily basis.

Left to Right: Ricky, Armani & Sarah dressed up for Red Ribbon Week

Going back to telehealth, What’s the best thing about being a part of telehealth?

A: Something that that Ricky had brought up, brought to our attention a long time ago was to actually ask these participants, what excites you, what makes you happy, what’s going to make you want to come back, you know? We got a lot of great feedback and, as coaches, we needed to come up with something that was going to fulfill what they wanted. So, we started with our social activities, we started doing interactive activities. One of the activities that we did was to make God boxes, we bought all the material for them, we sent it out to them and we explained the concept of a God box and explained what it was and how it can help and things like that. And, you know, they decorated it, they put glitter, they painted it got very, very creative with it. And, the impact that we saw that we were having, allowing them to listen to music, have fun, and, just know that for those two hours that we were doing our social activity, they did not worry about any kind of substance use and that’s the main important thing is that when we come to these kids, we do not identify them the same way we identify ourselves. You know, we don’t tell them, oh, you have a problem or you have this. We allow them to come to us and allow them to tell us, “Hey, I have a problem. This is the help that I need.”

 When it comes to telehealth, what legacy do you want to leave?

R: I’ve met with different people and asked them for their opinions on telehealth services. And it’s usually like, no, that’s never going to work. But my biggest goal and my vision for telehealth are for this to be at some point like the national model for telehealth substance use services because it’s something that’s a bit unorthodox, but now it’s become a little bit more normalized, especially with COVID. But my biggest goal is for it to be a nationally recognized form of recovery.

A: Being the first people to launch this, you know, this telehealth program, it’s like we are setting the foundation. To build that foundation we work hard, do what we need to do and get our name out there to be nationally recognized. I want [Rise Recovery] to be THAT organization., As soon as somebody comes in and says, “Hey, I’m suffering from this,” or “I’m dealing with this.” BOOM: here you go. Here’s a pamphlet for recovery telehealth. I would like to see it go global,  

I think it’s also important to note it’s not all cupcakes and rainbows.  We have difficult times that we have to face. We have ideas that clash or, ideas that that aren’t, seen thorough- We have time. We have our bodies. But the one thing about this program and about talent especially is that, going back to when I was talking to a lot about the love, compassion and caring, it’s like we carry that for ourselves as much as we carry it for our participants and for everybody And, it’s something that I’ve never experienced. And, coming into this is our organization. It was just something that I was like, the first time somebody put their arms around me told me, “I love you,” I was like, “What the heck?”

What’s your favorite thing about Rise so far?

R: Of the number of things that make this place so amazing, it’s the opportunity that it gives me to interact with the youth and even the families as well. Because I lived through that journey which I had to go through in order to get to where I’m at now, I get to connect with you. And the best part about it is like I’m coming at them from a different angle than people came at me. I come at them and say, “I don’t work for your school. I don’t work for you for the justice system. I don’t work for your parents. I’m here to support you. Somebody will help to support your family.” And the best part is that approaching it as a team unit with every family, that’s still the main goal. [Our approach is to] really just to make them feel at home; that sense of belonging that I know they’ve probably lacked for a long time.  Aside from the staff and everybody else, that’s my favorite part about working here is just how I’m able to approach the use now.

A: My favorite part of working at Rise came from one of my participants.  He had his difficulties. He had his things that that were there were, life on life’s terms, right.  He had his things going on for him. But he came back, and he successfully completed the program. He was one of the first to complete this program, and being able to still have that connection with him, being able to text him and to see how wonderful he’s doing because of this program and to know that a little piece of his success came from the hard work that we all put into it. And, it just makes me believe and it makes me want to do it more.  You get that little taste of ice cream, and then you want the whole gallon, you know what I mean? So that that’s what it is for me. It’s the fact that knowing that I am making a difference in someone’s life, I am just a little piece of the puzzle in the big picture.  It also helps that we have amazing leadership.

R: The transformation I have gone through my fair share of I wouldn’t say negative experiences, but like trials and tribulations. To finally have my first participants finish the program I hadn’t seen them in like two months. And he comes back, and he finishes [the program] and we do our last one-on-one over Zoom and he’s a completely different person. He’s saying, “Yeah, I’m doing these things to take care of my mental health. I’m doing all the things that you taught me, like the coping mechanisms and all that.” So, to see that what we’re trying to teach them is actually being applied in their life. And because of that, that transformation is being made. Those success stories make everything so worth it. Absolutely.

What is some advice that you would give any participant coming to rise or just anyone who’s on their journey of sobriety?

A: I guess the best piece of advice would be a two-part thing for me. Um, the first thing would be something that we get told. A lot of times in the room, some of our recovery is “Give yourself a break.” That’s something that I’ve always told my participants, I’ve shared about this a lot is the fact that you do not let your past mistakes dictate your future actions. And, then I explain to them with that, just because you made this mistake, just because you did this and you got caught, it does not make you a bad person. You are a good person who made a bad decision. And because you’re coming here, and you’ve taken that first step to walk through those doors or to turn on that laptop to get on to our telehealth program. You made the decision to not allow your past mistakes, to dictate your future actions.

R: For me, the biggest piece of advice, and this is actually the biggest piece of advice that I got (and its so cliché) was trust in the process because. I’ll say this has been one of the most difficult processes that I’ve been through. But because I’ve trusted in it, and I’ve done the work that I’ve had to do, my life has gotten way better than I could have ever imagined. And I think that’s something that kind of sort of keeps us out of recovery. At least something that kept me out was, I didn’t know what the process looked like, nor did I really care to know. But I was rolling with the punches. Going through adversity. Dealing with the trials and tribulations that come with being in recovery, because it’s temporary and the hope that comes out on the other side of that, it makes everything so much more worth it. So, it’s a lot of just trusting in this and, getting comfortable with being very uncomfortable.

What advice would you give a participant who’s just starting out in the telehealth program?

A:  One piece of advice and I think that that both Ricky and I can agree on this, is that the best piece of advice is that when we let them know that we don’t work for their probation officer. We don’t work for their school district. We don’t work for their parents. We are only strictly there for them. It breaks down a wall or breaks down a barrier that, that they’ve already had built up on them. And, the best thing to do is to let them know I’m here for you. Without you, I don’t exist. And so, what that puts the ball in there that gives them the opportunity to say, “Hey, this person is really caring about me.” And especially when you keep that, that, that one on one with them, and you keep touching base with them, like send them a text message randomly, you know, once a week or something, just checking up on you. How you doing? It makes them feel like you are really, really here for them.

R:  It’s kind of hard to come up with an answer to this because, I feel like my first interactions with participants have been very different because it’s very different dynamics that we deal with. And it all goes back to trust for me, because if there’s no trust, there’s nothing. There’s nothing going back to the, you know, I don’t work for your PO or for your school district or for your parents. We’re going to get through this. We’re going to get through this. But if you will, just confide in me; trust me just a little bit. And help me to help you. Being open with us and also like reassuring them that, I’m working at your pace. I’m not here to push my beliefs on you. I’m not here to tell you what I think you need to do. I want you to tell me what you think is going to work for you. What do you think is going to help you get some progress towards this ultimate goal that we have? Like really empowering them to make that decision. I think that’s when everything changes.