Scott Strode started The Phoenix to reclaim recovery through fitness and community.
Scott Strode took his first drink at age 11, later turning to cocaine in his mid-teens. Now in recovery for 22 years, he’s an athlete and entrepreneur who’s changing the conversation about addiction in America. The Phoenix, the nonprofit he founded in 2006, offers free recovery support to people with as little as 48 hours sobriety. Ashoka’s Simon Stumpf spoke with Scott to learn more about his journey to heal wounds and reclaim recovery.
Scott, The Phoenix is rooted in your own experiences of addiction and recovery. How did you get sober?
I knew that if I didn’t decide to get clean and sober, I would die. I chose to live – and soon after found my way into a boxing gym. From there, I was introduced to climbing and triathlons and a culture of healthy goal-setting that gave me a new sense of what I was capable of – and showed me that I was capable of quitting alcohol and drugs. Meanwhile, many friends were either in recovery or still struggling with substance use, white knuckling it, trying to stay sober. I thought: we need to go climb a mountain together because there’s something you can see in yourself up there that you can’t see from down here.
You started The Phoenix to climb that mountain?
Yes, I was living in Boulder, Colorado, at the time – an active community with many running groups, cycling and triathlon teams, and climbing gyms. People wear team jerseys and gym shirts with a lot of pride. So, when we started Phoenix, the first thing I did was print T-shirts – it’s how I spent our first donation. As I met friends in recovery, I’d give them a shirt and I’d say, “Hey, by the way, we have climbing on Wednesday night and a bike ride Saturday mornings, if you want to come.” I remember when the first guy showed up, he said, “Does anybody else come to this thing?” I said, “I hope so.”
Ha! Are shirts still part of your strategy?
Yes. All of us show up for a weekly bike ride in our Phoenix shirts – it’s a way to say recovery is possible, to celebrate sobriety and let others know: we’re here for you if you need us. It brings the issue into the light and takes away a lot of the shame, which is one of the main drivers to relapse. So, what started as 60 of us in Boulder spread to Colorado Springs where a lot of veterans joined in, then the heart of Denver to an area with a high homeless population. Today, The Phoenix has a presence in 22 states and over 40 communities and has supported over 33,000 individuals with our free programs.
How are you thinking about growth?
We’ve started to think: how can we scale in a way that we can remove any barrier to access our programs? How does The Phoenix become a movement – where someone who’s inspired by what we’re doing can grow their own sober active community where they live. With our large anchor communities in Denver, Boston, and soon Wichita, we’re able to train folks to create an emotionally and physically safe, active community, adhering to our mission and values – a place where people can begin to heal.
What have you learned about what’s driving our addiction crisis?
Many of us, including me, carry trauma from experiences growing up or experiences with unhealthy relationships, broken homes, violence or mental illness. I’m encouraged to see new research and more discussion about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the challenges that cause people to look for emotional wellbeing externally. So how do we begin to heal from hurtful experiences? The power of a nurturing and supportive community – it’s what we all want, right? This is uniquely powerful for people in recovery at The Phoenix, but it’s also powerful for everyone. We all face adversities and pain in life. We are all are rising from the ashes of something.
Zooming out, what’s holding back progress in the field?
The mental models used to innovate and address substance use are outdated – in many industries. It’s no different in the addiction treatment and recovery space. We go straight to the acute care mental model where someone comes in, gets treated for 30 days, leaves, is supposedly fixed, and somehow miraculously finds a recovery support network that helps her or him maintain sobriety. The reality is that most people coming out of formal treatment don’t find an effective recovery support – and many relapse.
So, this is an absolutely key question and one that I’m turning my attention to more and more. We’re losing so many loved ones to addiction: 20-plus million people in this country identify as having some challenges with substance use. Another 20-plus million identify as being in recovery of some sort. That’s 40-plus million people directly touched by addiction and beyond that, their families, loved ones and friends often feel powerless, angry, and hopeless to help.
With so many people hurting, where else do you see your work landing?
Substance Use Disorder effects people of all walks of life – we must remove the stigma associated with this disease so people have the freedom to seek help without fear of being judged or risking losing their job. The private sector has an opportunity to help turn around the addiction crisis. How? By thinking differently about employees who are living with this disease and supporting them. What does emotional safety look like at work? How can we help people feel more connected to their colleagues? Companies that take these questions seriously and help employees get sober and maintain their recovery will see that everyone wins.
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