New club aims to help students struggling with substance abuse


Two UT graduates have created the first on campus organization for students who are struggling with addiction: the University of Tampa Recovery Community (UTRC). They developed a comprehensive plan for the club, which includes steps on how to create a community, educate members and gain support from the university. The club is now holding meetings and preparing for a semester of support and healing.

Gina Firth, associate dean of wellness, has been trying to create a student-based recovery community at UT for 10 years. Finally, in late 2016, she met two students who were up to the task.

Nicholle Bates, who graduated from UT in December 2016 and is one of the founders of UTRC, struggled with substance abuse herself. UTRC’s other founder also struggled with substance abuse. Because of this, he requested anonymity because he doesn’t want to risk his job. When Bates came to UT, she knew she needed a support group on campus to keep her moving in the right direction.

“You have to build a community,” Bates said. “You have to build a safe space. We want to create an alternative: ‘Hey, here are people just like me who understand what I’m going through.’”

Both of the UTRC founders knew this couldn’t be just another organization run by the Dickey Health and Wellness Center. It had to be run by students and it had to offer a sense of security.

“Anonymity is one huge thing in this community that we do,” Bates said. “What is said in our safe environment doesn’t leave the room. It’s not going out to your girl friends or your guy friends; it stays here.”

UTRC is modeled after the college recovery community, which has been successfully used at other universities like Texas Tech and the University of Texas, Austin. It involves a 12-step program to help students struggling with addiction, along with a supportive community for students to engage with one another and help each other through the process.

USF has their own recovery community, and UTRC will share a master calendar with them. They will go on the same outings and attend special events together in order to grow the support system and recovery community. USF started with only three people, and there are now 18 to 20 members. Bates hopes that UTRC grows in a similar way.

“Now we’re just building our community,” Bates said. “It’s a day-to-day process. We have our long-term goal, but right now it’s making sure that everyone feels safe in the environment.”

Once UTRC grows in size, Bates and Firth plan to take members out into the Tampa community and perform service for those in need. Two organizations they are hoping to volunteer for are Trinity Cafe, which serves meals to those who can’t afford them, and The Well, which helps impoverished people in the Ybor area find jobs and equips them with food and other essentials. They will also host events like rollerskating, dinner outings, celebrations, guest speakers and movie nights.

“It’s important when you’re in that recovery process to rebuild your social skills and learn that having fun doesn’t have to involve mood-altering substances,” Firth said. “Providing that outlet and opportunity to have fun is so important.”

Although UTRC meetings will only be for students who have been addicted or are currently addicted to drugs or alcohol, people who are recovery-friendly will be able to attend open events and community service opportunities with the members.

The meeting times and locations are not made known to the public. Instead, students who are interested in coming to a meeting or speaking to one of the club founders can call 240-457-1141 or email Bates says that anyone interested in joining who may not feel comfortable attending a meeting can meet separately with her until they are ready to talk with the other members. She hopes that friends of students who are suffering from addiction will also reach out to the club so they can work together with the goal of recovery.

Although UTRC just became an official organization, they have already held two meetings, the last of which had seven attendees. In their meetings, UTRC members will discuss relapse prevention, how to build a positive support system, methods of resolving conflict, any spiritual or emotional issues members may be having and all-around wellness of meeting attendees. Bates and Firth are confident that their one official member will turn into many more as the semester progresses.

“Someone reached out to us last week,” Bates said. “It’s not about how many people are in the room. We want to make the difference. It’s about their recovery and our recovery, at the end of the day. If I can help one person today, at least I did something to make a difference.”

Liz MacLean can be reached at

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