By Madiha Gomaa
In 2016, when Paul Hammersley, founder of Malden Overcoming Addiction (MOA), met Keriann Caccavaro in a recovery coach training, he told her about an idea he had been working on “nonstop” since 2013: A peer recovery center that offers a community support-based environment for people living with substance use disorder. She thought it was impossible. Now, she is a program director at this center.
The Bridge in Malden is not a typical addiction recovery center. The facility at 239 Commercial St. doesn’t provide therapy, clinical or health care services. It is a peer-driven model. All peer staff members have lived a similar experience to those they hope to help through this center. Navigating their own pathway, they have found sobriety through fellowships, community, or therapy. Now, they want to help people reach sobriety as they did.
“Peer-driven means that it’s all based off of what worked for us; what we try to do is meet our members exactly where they’re at in their sobriety,” Caccavaro said. “We try to support them on what they would like to do and would benefit them in the long run.”
The dominating narrative in addiction treatment is that abstinence-based recovery is the only way, which, according to Caccavaro, is not true. She believes this narrative dissuades a large number of people who may have tried that approach and, for some reason, didn’t work for them. Caccavaro, who has been working in the field for over seven years now, says that recovery is not one straightway. There’s no particular approach that could work for everyone.
The Bridge tries to offer all types of support. “To be able to access and help everyone, we try to hold a space for whatever our members need. And if it works, it works. But if it doesn’t, we just try the next thing,” Caccavaro said.
Caccavaro, who has battled addiction for 15 years, understands how important it is to provide a safe space that accepts people without judging them or pressuring them to meet certain expectations. She once needed this kind of support and couldn’t find it. “I came from a time where either you go to jail or do the 12 Steps pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. There wasn’t a place where I could seek help and have a whole team of people surround me with love and not ask me why I did this,” Caccavaro said.
In 2019, after years of effort by Hammersley and Dom DiSario, the treasurer of Malden Overcoming Addiction, the Bridge received a state grant and found a location. Finally, the center officially opened in 2020. Then the world shut down. It was difficult to operate during a pandemic in a place where in-person communication is the core concept. But limited capacity was a must for several months. In March of 2021, The Bridge finally opened its doors to everyone.
Caccavaro said that after launching The Bridge, neighbors came to understand what the center’s premise is about. No one has complained about anything because none of what they thought would happen happened, she said. People realized that the center was no threat to their community. On the contrary, it provides security and support to everyone, according to Caccavaro.
“All-Recovery” is one of The Bridge’s meetings that welcomes all pathways. It doesn’t matter if whoever wants to join is medication-assisted, doing the 12 Steps, or into Buddhist philosophies. “We welcome all levels. If they had a bad experience in the past, we’d get them to a place where they can create their own meeting or their own support group to heal from that experience,” Caccavaro said.
The Center also holds a gratitude meeting every day at noon and provides Reiki support and peer-to-peer meetings.
“I kind of always felt like an outcast and isolated. I didn’t want to be anywhere. I didn’t want to do anything. But then I came here, and everyone welcomed me with open arms,” said Kileigh Hudon, one of the center’s early members. “I finally felt included.”
The center hosts family support meetings on the first and third Monday of the month, where the chosen speaker might be a mother whose teen or adult child is now sober or parents who have lost their child and want to share their story. These meetings provide a space for anyone to share where they’re at with their loved one, whether good or bad.
“We don’t really advertise that meeting because we need to allow the parents to have their space in their healing,” said Caccavaro. “If we bombard them with people who are very new in sobriety, the family members often shy away.”
The center invites experts to provide half-hour Narcan training to show the family members exactly how to use it and where they can receive it, whether it would be a local pharmacy or community health center that offers it for free.
The Bridge also holds closed 12 Step men’s meetings. Caccavaro explained that they don’t usually give active users members referrals to this meeting because this meeting is for men with a very long time of sobriety and who had gone through the 12 Steps. However, they also provide open meetings, such as gamblers’ anonymous meetings, women’s meetings, and Narcotics Anonymous.
The Bridge’s goal isn’t only about providing a safe and supportive space; it doesn’t want to act as a temporary solution or quick fix. The center seeks to help people live the life they almost lost to addiction by connecting them to as many resources as possible and teaching them how to use the basic services, how to apply for housing, how to write a resume and apply for a job, how to get their driving license how to make a phone call to MassHealth to apply for health insurance and how to call detoxes to get a free care bed.
Consistency is all that it takes to become a member of the center. The Bridge requires members to show up three times a week and utilize the center in whatever way they want, whether joining a meeting, attending an event, joining the volunteer committee, or participating in game nights.
“We have a standard form application; it’s nothing invasive, just their name and address so we can stay up to date with members utilizing our center and know what’s going on with them,” said Tara Killeen, volunteer program coordinator. Caccavaro believes that engaging members and getting them involved within the community helps bridge the gap between the stigma of substance abuse and those who suffer from it.
“Most people with substance use disorder are the most caring, compassionate, empathetic people you will ever meet. We were trying to survive at that moment. We’re not at that moment. Our past does not define us,” Caccavaro said.
The center’s volunteer committee offers members opportunities to engage with the community by participating in various activities and events, like feeding the homeless, park cleanups, and Malden Porchfest.
Members can also volunteer to organize the center’s events. It gives them a sense of belonging to a smaller community. “They ask us what they can do to get involved. They cook and set up the tables. We had certified members give yoga and Reiki classes,” Killeen said.
The center now has over 500 members. Many of them, when they first walked in, couldn’t see themselves ever overcoming addiction. One year later, The Bridge witnessed many celebrating one year of sobriety. “I’m very grateful to be part of an environment that helps the next person and maybe prevents them from having to travel the road I traveled,” Caccavaro said.
“We give all of ourselves back to the community and to people who are struggling. The biggest part of recovery is helping people, which helps you to stay in the process,” said Michael Leggiero, a member who has been in recovery for 12 years.
The Bridge does its best to help everyone. But staff members are also aware that sometimes they just can’t. Often people with mental health problems come to the center seeking help. However, the center isn’t equipped to provide medical health services. So, what they try to do is to guide them to the right place.
“At times, we must know where to draw the lines. Staff is not trained to support people with severe mental health problems,” Caccavaro said. “It’s important to feel comfortable saying: I can’t help you right now, but A, B, and C can. How about we help you get to them?”
One of the benefits of having this center in Malden is its location. Malden is easily accessible by transportation. The Bridge is located between the Malden and Wellington MBTA stations. Also, it’s close to many important services like MelroseWakefield hospital and Cambridge Health Alliance.
“We can’t just think that the person just wants daytime peer support. They need therapists, and they need counseling or children’s counseling. There are many things that come with one person. And so, we got to minimize the traffic,” Caccavaro said.
The Bridge tries to respond to the demographics of Malden; every city has different demographics and thus different demands for services Caccavaro said. “We primarily have 27- to 38-year-old white males, we have a lower female count, we have the lowest LGBTQ count, and in a city that is high Asian community, we have no Asian members,” Caccavaro said.
She explained that people from different communities may not seek help or reach out to places like The Bridge due to trauma or distrust. She believes that The Bridge still has a long way to go to meet different groups and communities. “If my demographic is primarily 27- to 38-year-old white males, how are we really meeting our community where they’re at? We have to meet them; we have to let them know that this is here, and this is available.” Caccavaro said.
“If my life didn’t get better. I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Caccavaro said. “That’s the message that really needs to go out there: it seems difficult right now in active addiction, but if it was that difficult to recover, none of us would do it. It wouldn’t be worth it.”