Milwaukee Alano Club holds 14th annual Walk for Recovery
Alano Club celebrates 75 years of sober living work, bringing together affected community
The 14th annual Walk for Recovery in Milwaukee. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
“I do have 36 years sober,” said Karen H., a woman who agreed to share her story on Saturday, shortly before the 14th Walk for Recovery in Milwaukee was to begin. The annual event brought dozens of people together, from those who have been in recovery from substance use disorder for decades, to others who’ve only just now begun their journey. “Clean time does not equal recovery,” Karen continued, the sun beaming down comfortably on the late summer morning. “Sober time does not equal recovery. This is a long journey.”
The crowd gathered for the event at Milwaukee’s Alano Club clapped in solidarity, though many simply listened with knowing faces. “I will say that I came in when I was 19,” she continued, “I was desperate. I was ready to be done. The gift of desperation, I got that. I had a premonition of being buried alive, because that’s what my addiction felt like.”
To this day, Karen’s not sure whether it was a dream, a hallucination, or something else entirely. “But I was six feet under in a dirt grave,” she recalled, “alone and there was dirt falling on top of me. And I panicked, and I cried, and then I saw the blue sky, kind of like today. And I said, ‘I want the blue sky.’”
In college at the time in Stevens Point, Karen told her family that she had a problem. Because many members of her family also struggled with alcoholism, convincing them that she had a problem was difficult. “I kept waking up in dorm rooms and not knowing how I got there,” said Karen. “And I didn’t like that.”
With the support of her grandmother, Karen was able to move back home to Sheboygan. Having hit her lowest point in Stevens Point, Karen avoids returning there if at all possible. Recovery was a challenge, not just staying sober but also tackling her depression at a time when antidepressant medication was less understood. Karen eventually moved to Milwaukee, had children, and gradually learned what she could change and what she could not. Her story, although inspiring, is familiar with anyone who has struggled with substance use disorder.
Over 600 lives were lost last year to drug-related deaths in Milwaukee County, more than homicides or automotive accidents. Last year’s death toll eclipsed that of 2020, which was also a record-breaking year. The vast majority of those deaths involved various forms of fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid. Due to the spread of fentanyl, deaths solely involving heroin are virtually non-existent in Milwaukee County. Meanwhile, cocaine-related deaths have risen significantly due to fentanyl contamination.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, over 9,800 people have died of a drug overdose between 2014 and 2020 statewide. In August, the DHS issued a public health advisory due to the steady rise of fentanyl-related deaths. From 2019 to 2021, fentanyl-related deaths in Wisconsin rose by 97%. In March, the state legalized fentanyl testing strips, permitting frontline organizations to distribute the strips within the community.
Events like the Walk for Recovery not only provide a positive environment to celebrate recovery, but also to connect people to resources. Several tables lined one side of the Alano Club’s parking lot, which had been blocked off for the event. The tables led to a large inflatable ax-throwing station, a game for the many children at the event.
People of all ages mingled and laughed. Some gathered on the club’s porch and in its mansion-like interior. Not only was it the 14th annual Walk for Recovery, but the Alano Club was celebrating 75 years of helping people along their path to recovery.
One face in the crowd was Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), who’s now running for a vacant Milwaukee Common Council seat. “This is a really wonderful and important event for the city, and I’m happy to support it,” Brostoff, who’d brought his three children to the event, told Wisconsin Examiner. The people manning the tables offered a variety of resources geared towards those seeking recovery.
Drop the Needle, which holds an annual fundraising event to support recovery-related organizations, had one of the tables. “We’ve done four events so far,” Chloe Croke, one of the organization’s members, told Wisconsin Examiner. Drop the Needle’s founders are DJs, and many of the events the organization holds involve artistic expression, something rooted in the original members’ backgrounds. “I’m in recovery myself,” said Croke, “and all of us have been affected in some way. So, at first we were using the idea of music to bring people together.”
Croke feels that events like the Walk of Recovery are crucial. “All of us in some shape or form, I feel like, have been affected by addiction,” said Croke. The Walk for Recovery brings everyone together, she added, “addicts, family members, community, to show support for all those people that are in recovery.”
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Beside Croke’s table was The Phoenix, a sober active community. “What we do is allow anybody who’s in recovery for at least two days, all you need is 48 hours of sobriety, and you can come and work out with us,” Byron Thompson explained to Wisconsin Examiner. “We do yoga, rock climbing, basketball,” Thompson said, “everything is free that we do.” Founded in 2006, the Phoenix didn’t come to Milwaukee until early 2020 just before the pandemic. The group also has virtual options, as well as social activities such as art.
“It’s a great outlet for people in recovery,” said Thompson. “When we talk about recovery, we talk about mind, body, and spirit. And we kind of help in the mind and spirit realm. Whereas you’re doing whatever program you’re doing, we go alongside that. So when you get out of your meeting, let’s go for a run, let’s go for a walk. It also brings people together who are in recovery. You’re associating with other people that are like-minded.”
Laura Haas is a peer support specialist at United Community Center, a rehab center. The center has two women’s houses, that house women and children for 30 to 90 days, and one men’s house, and offers day treatment and outpatient options. The center also has one of the city’s only Spanish-speaking outpatient programs.
“There are never enough treatment centers, and there are waiting lists,” said Haas. “So if someone comes and says, ‘I need to get in now,’ sometimes there’s a waiting list. And it’s sad. But I know that they are working on getting more treatment centers.”
Demand for treatment centers throughout Milwaukee County is high. The presence of treatment centers not only provides resources to those who need it, but also can have a positive effect on overdoses in the immediate area. The vicinity around Community Medical Services in West Allis has had fewer overdoses since the medication-assisted treatment clinic first opened in 2019.
Social stigma and difficulties with the zoning process has prevented another CMS clinic from opening in the City of Milwaukee. During 2020, the clinic reached its capacity for patients. Haas said that for her own organization, “as soon as a bed is empty, it gets filled right away.”
Shortly before the walk, Peter Wright, executive director of the Alano Club, addressed the crowd. “At this location since 1950 there have been recovery meetings,” said Wright. “This organization existed prior to this building; we are celebrating 75+ years of existence.”
Wright asked for a moment of silence, “for those who cannot be here with us today, those who we have known and have lost on this journey, and those who have not found this journey yet.” For five seconds the event was blanketed with silence.
Karen spoke shortly afterward. “What’s going to keep you clean is working the steps,” she said, “going to meetings, connecting with people, [and] fellowship. We need the fellowship. Changing your behaviors, changing your thinking. This is a thinking disease.” She stressed, “work those three steps like your life depends on it, because it does.”
When it was time for the walk, people lined up along the sidewalk behind a banner. Walkers traversed the long blocks not far from Milwaukee’s lakefront. Positive and hopeful, they walked from the Alano Club towards the lake, up hills and then back to the club.
Although they laughed and joked along the way, the procession remained chantless, as this was no protest. It was a celebration for those continuing their journey to recovery.
Upon returning to the Alano Club, the walkers were greeted with burgers and lunch snacks. Enjoying the company of friends, many also reflected on one more day in recovery, preparing for tomorrow.
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