Liza Ryan, a Social Work and Criminal Justice double major, is tackling complex social problems like homelessness and the opioid crisis in ways that have become a model for the rest of the country.
It poured the night of April 2nd here in Vermont, the same night Champlain students were raising awareness and funds to support homeless and at-risk young adults. Part of Spectrum’s Sleep Out Event, the Champlain team collected more than $3,000 over the last year to help Vermont’s vulnerable youth access food, shelter, and emergency services. When times are tough, as they certainly are right now, these individuals are among the first to feel the hit.
Heading up the Champlain Sleep Out team is Liza Ryan ’20, a double major in Social Work and Criminal Justice, and a remarkable member of our Champlain community.
When you meet Ryan, you realize she never stops moving. She’s shoveling snow for Champlain’s Physical Plant, passing the puck to teammates on Champlain’s Hockey team, fielding questions as a Resident Assistant, launching wellness initiatives as the Director of Student Wellbeing for the Student Government Association, and hurrying back and forth between her jobs and internships at the UVM Medical Center and Burlington Police Department. In her spare time she sets up panels with experts to discuss opioid harm reduction, distributes lifesaving doses of Narcan—the nasal spray used by first responders to revive overdose victims—and writes Op-Eds encouraging legislators to pass bills that will save lives.
Ryan works for the Burlington Police Department under Jackie Corbally, the City of Burlington’s Opioid Policy Manager. A recovering addict herself, Ryan is committed to finding innovative and data-driven solutions to the massive opioid epidemic that has raged silently for more than 20 years, devastating communities across the country and taking the lives of more than 800,000 Americans.
Ryan was accepted into Champlain College two years after she got sober. “I used alcohol, opiate painkillers, and other depressants while active in my addiction,” she says. “I got sober young and never touched heroin or fentanyl. Others I knew, did not have as fortunate a story.” Ryan says she lost more than 30 friends who were in recovery. “That really humbled me,” she says. For the last four years, in a deliberate, compassionate, and impressively mature way, she has dedicated her life to making sure others stay alive.
Our goal is to identify people in our community who need help, and then do outreach to gauge their interest in treatment, but also to let them know we’re here, we care about them, and we want them to succeed.Liza Ryan ’20 // Criminal Justice & Social Work
“A large part of my internship with the Burlington Police Department involves outreach work,” says Ryan. “When we identify someone in the community as high risk, we work to support them and help them access recovery services.” Ryan and her supervisor Corbally begin by finding the best way to get in touch with the people who need care. For those with substance use disorders or serious mental health challenges, it may involve calling them, visiting their home with a police officer, or getting in touch with a service provider with whom they are already engaged.
“Our goal is to identify people in our community who need help, and then do outreach to gauge their interest in treatment, but also to let them know we’re here, we care about them, and we want them to succeed,” says Ryan.
Burlington’s Police Department was one of the first units in the United States to shift away from War on Drugs tactics like massive arrests and instead take on the social issues underpinning addiction. That move has become a model for the rest of the country, and even caught the attention of The New York Times. Tackling complex social problems like the opioid crisis through a combination of social work and policing might seem like a no-brainer, but it is considered revolutionary.
What’s more, is it works.
“From 2017 to 2018, Burlington saw a 50% decrease in overdose deaths, which was not only unprecedented in Vermont, but throughout the entire country,” says Ryan. “We’re the only county in the state of Vermont where overdose deaths are going down each year.”
Countless lives have been saved by this seemingly simple measure of having a full-time social worker on the police department staff. Ryan is eager to do more, and says we need to be relentless in this work. “We need to try new things and keep an eye on what other communities are doing. We are still losing way too many lives,” she says. “It is important to keep learning about what is going to work.”
The coronavirus has limited the outreach Ryan and Corbally can do, but they are still trying to connect with people who are struggling and in desperate need of services. “I am now even more grateful for all of the police officers across Chittenden County,” she says. “They are still going to work every day and really doing the best that they can.”
Ryan’s double major in Social Work and Criminal Justice sets her up to tackle social issues in unique and exciting ways. “The more I got involved in social work, the more I wanted to connect it to law enforcement,” she says. “I want to see how social workers can help make change within the criminal justice system—and in local police departments in particular.” Her internship has given her lots of opportunities to see how law enforcement and social work go hand in hand.
Champlain’s Upside-Down Curriculum, which allows students to take courses in their major in their first semester, helped Ryan determine her career path fairly quickly and prepared her for these intense internships and jobs while still in school. “I love the Upside-Down curriculum so much,” she says. “Diving right into topics like family violence, criminal law, and social justice in my first year really assured me I was on track with my career.”
For 20 hours a week, Ryan also works as a Peer Recovery Coach in the Emergency Department of the UVM Medical Center. Even more impressively, she’s on call for another 20 hours. This peer program, which is run through the Turning Point Center of Chittenden County, connects coaches like Ryan, who can draw on their own long-term recovery experiences, with others similarly affected by addiction.
“I meet them where they’re at,” she says of the people who are paired with her when they arrive in the emergency department. “I’m not there to force them into treatment. I’m there to help them get to where they want to go in a patient-centered way.”
Turning Point had to suspend their in-person services due to COVID-19, but Peer Recovery Coaches like Ryan are still on call 24/7 and available to provide telephone support to individuals entering the emergency department for any substance use related problems. “We are continuing our daily calls too,” she says. “We check in with about 25–30 patients every day right now, calling patients we met in the emergency department who have since been discharged.”
Ryan is constantly advocating for people to get into treatment, for treatment to get better, and to reduce the stigma of addiction. She says she’s been able to take her advocacy work to the next level thanks to what she’s learned from her professors at Champlain. “I now have the confidence and skills to talk to people who can make change, make things happen,” she says.
Ryan credits Tarn Foerg, Associate Professor of Social Work and Field Education Coordinator, for guiding her through her first year and her fieldwork. “Tarn has many great connections in Burlington and knows so many folks,” says Ryan. “She has so much experience doing direct service. Really anything we throw at her, she can handle.”
So what’s next for Ryan and her advocacy work in Burlington? The city itself is making some solid strides when it comes to the opioid crisis. Safe Recovery, run by the Howard Center, includes the state’s largest syringe exchange. “Last year, it also started a low-barrier buprenorphine program,” says Ryan. Buprenorphine, an FDA-approved medication for opioid dependence, eases withdrawal symptoms, reduces cravings, and prevents other opioids from affecting the brain. It’s prescribed in short-term doses to keep people off heroin and fentanyl long enough to get them into treatment—at least that’s the hope. Most importantly, it can keep them alive.
People approach opioid addiction from a moral standpoint, but you need to understand, addiction is a medical condition, a chronic disorder. We don’t say to people with cancer and diabetes, ‘You deserve to die in the street.’Scott Pavek, harm reduction advocate
At the county level, Chittenden County State’s Attorney, Sarah George, announced in 2018 that her office would not prosecute low-level buprenorphine possession charges. “We still have a long way to go, and there are countless barriers for folks seeking treatment,” says Ryan. “But when you have leaders from law enforcement supporting harm reduction principles, that goes a long way.”
What’s keeping these measures from rolling out across the state and the rest of the country? Scott Pavek, a speaker at one of Ryan’s harm reduction panels and a local advocate, says stigma and the inability to understand this disorder prevents people from making change. “People approach opioid addiction from a moral standpoint, but you need to understand, addiction is a medical condition, a chronic disorder,” says Pavek. “We don’t say to people with cancer and diabetes, ‘You deserve to die in the street.'”
Two years ago, Ryan’s current supervisor, Jackie Corbally, came to her class to discuss the work she was doing in the Burlington community. “It really opened my world. I kept thinking about the amazing work she gets to do,” says Ryan. “I went up to her after class and said I want your job.” Now, just a month before she graduates, Ryan is ready to take this critical work to the next level.
“I am a person in recovery today, working a couple of amazing jobs, and looked upon as a leader, friend, and trusted individual at the college that I attend,” says Ryan in her VT Digger Op-Ed. “Absolutely none of this would be possible if I was not in recovery. I want everyone with opiate use disorder to be able to say that they are a person in recovery, and it does not matter to me in the slightest how you get there. To be in recovery you need to have a willingness to change and you need to be alive.”
This outstanding senior has inspired many of us to take action in meaningful ways, whether it’s by supporting homeless youth or spreading awareness about lifesaving harm reduction measures. “Everyone plays a role in this effort,” says Ryan. “You can be a catalyst for change.”