BARBOURVILLE, KY – Union College hosted the second annual Appalachian Gathering for Recovery Solutions on Thursday, March 9, 2023. Hundreds of people from Appalachia and beyond attended in-person and online, and over 20 organizations sponsored the event. Three keynote speakers, four panel discussions, and many informational displays offered resources, ideas, and hope.

Tim Robinson, the first speaker and CEO of Addiction Recovery Care (ARC), highlighted Kentucky’s leadership in recovery solutions. Kentucky offers the highest number of residential treatment beds in the U.S., he said. He also shared that Congressional District 5, which covers eastern Kentucky, ranks first in the nation for access to treatment.

Robinson noted that the leaders of these initiatives were “born and bred right here in the mountains.” He said that the same determination it takes to “put on your boots and go into a coal mine and risk your lives every day to feed your family” has driven these successes.

“We’re stepping up on this issue to say we’re going to take care of our neighbor,” Robinson said.

Next, Geoff Wilson, President of Kentucky Association of Addiction Professionals, spoke about the link between trauma and Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Decades of research show that childhood trauma is “much more common than people realize” and that it is often the underlying cause of addiction, he said.

Wilson stressed that addressing underlying trauma is “a long-term process, so we want to have a treatment plan that takes that into account.”

The third speaker, Dr. Al J. Mooney, has helped establish recovery centers around the world and is the author of the bestseller, The Recovery Zone. He and Union graduate student Cosmina Noaghea discussed the stages of long-term recovery.

All three speakers emphasized that widespread societal collaboration is necessary. Treatment is a short-term crisis intervention, but recovery is a long-term lifestyle requiring extensive time and resources to maintain. “We need every tool,” Robinson said.

Afternoon panel discussions focused on four social sectors: treatment facilities, the justice system, faith-based communities, and higher education. Panels were chaired by Tim Cesario, Director of Recovery Services at Cumberland River Behavioral Health; Cathy E. Prewitt, Chief Judge of Kentucky District Court; Rev. Kent Gilbert, President and CEO of Support Centers International; and Dr. Kathy Blaydes-Walczak, Director of Addiction Studies at Union College.

Throughout the day, speakers said that society needs to shift how it thinks about addiction. Kaylee Brooks, Director of Outreach at Stepworks Recovery Centers, said, “Addiction is a brain disease,” and “recovery and stigma don’t mix.” She and others explained that framing addiction as moral failure, rather than illness, just adds to the shame and isolation that drives substance use in the first place.

Presenter after presenter called for a holistic approach to treat the disease. This includes trauma-informed care and mindfulness practices like meditation and expressive arts. Speakers also drove home the need for a variety of social supports.

Basic needs like housing, transportation, health insurance, and affordable childcare are part of what Wilson called “recovery capital.” Preparation for meaningful work and opportunities to earn a living wage are part of the picture, too.

Robinson noted the successes of ARC’s “Crisis to Career” vocational rehabilitation model. He also praised the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s recent launch of the Fair Chance Academy. The Academy offers training and other resources to employers wishing to hire those in recovery and is the first of its kind in the nation.

Regarding prevention, Aaron Smallwood, Clinical Services Director at Stepworks, said, “anything we can do that helps a person generate belonging, connection, purpose, fulfillment” will help. He and others advocate beginning this prevention work in the K-12 school systems as early as possible.

Many speakers also brought up the role of spirituality in recovery. Robinson said the heart of what ARC is trying to do is “replace spiritual poverty with spiritual destiny.” He and others discussed spirituality as a way to find purpose and hope.

Wilson says he does whatever he can to help clients practice spirituality. “For some people, that will be faith, God, religion, which is great,” he says, “but that’s not going to be for every client.” Engaging respectfully and making a genuine human connection is part of spiritual health, too, he said.

As host of the event, Union College dedicated facilities, technical support, student volunteers, and other resources both years. Blaydes-Walczak was part of the steering committee that planned the event.

“We have seen so much of the impact of this (addiction), that we needed to do something,” Blaydes-Walczak said. As Kentucky’s first college in the Appalachian Mountains, Union leadership felt called to host, she said.

Union President Dr. Marcia Hawkins said, “Gatherings like this are important for sharing ideas and results. Many great organizations and services are combating the disease of addiction and its associated stigma.”

“Addiction is a disease of our region, home, and neighbors,” Hawkins continued. “When we come together and share our stories, it empowers us with hope for addiction recovery and the tools to make it happen.”

Union will host the Gathering again next year. Organizers named it a “gathering” rather than a “conference” to stress that it is not just for professionals. Anyone interested in recovery – including affected individuals and family members – is welcome to attend, free of charge.

The college also offers two degrees in Substance Abuse Counseling. Blaydes-Walczak led the development of these programs in response to increased community needs.

For more information about the Appalachian Gathering for Recovery Solutions or Union’s Addictions Studies Program, contact Dr. Kathy Blaydes-Walczak at (606) 546-1525 or

Press Release courtesy Union College