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Student’s personal recovery opened his eyes to social work career

For years, Donald McDonald viewed his life through multiple lenses: as a Navy veteran, husband, father, former high school English teacher and tutor, music instructor, and trumpeter in a jazz band. But 10 years ago, he said he finally discovered the man he most needed to see.

“I am what recovery looks like,” said McDonald, a second-year MSW student in the Triangle Distance Education Program. “People don’t know that because I’ve been told not to talk about it.”

And yet, he has learned to do so. As a recovering alcoholic and addict, McDonald said he now embraces his own story, an effort he has honed, in part, through his work with Recovery Communities of North Carolina, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization that teaches people to speak openly about their recovery status.

“I talk about it now because I want to raise the profile of recovery and reduce the stigma and the obstacles for people such as myself who are going back to school or trying to get a job, or trying to buy a house or just trying to re-enter society,” he said.

Still, McDonald didn’t expect that his recovery and advocacy would also help to open his eyes to a career in social work. But about five years ago, after working a series of odd jobs, he found himself needing more professionally.

“I’d just gotten to this turning point in my life, and I realized that I had always compartmented my recovery separate from my education, from my work experience, my veteran’s status–everything,” he explained. “And after five years, I realized that my (recovery) was really a big part of my life, and I knew that I was good at it. So, I thought, ‘Maybe I could work with this.’ ”

Soon after, McDonald revised his resume—incorporating his own personal recovery experience—and walked into a local methadone clinic and asked for a job. He was hired on the spot as a site monitor in charge of security. That job led to enrollment in Wake Tech’s substance abuse counseling program and an internship with The Healing Place, a nonprofit recovery and rehabilitation facility for homeless people with alcohol and drug dependency. McDonald was eventually hired at the organization and works today as a case manager for individuals completing the last phase of the recovery program.

“And then two years ago, I was like this is cool, but I want more,” he said. “I want to have the letters to sit at the big table and to make the big decisions and to make some change.”

Because most of his colleagues at The Healing Place are social workers, McDonald knew he needed to pursue his MSW. Still, he wasn’t sure if he could afford to work part time and go back to school. Receiving the Ellen E. Power Award and Dean’s Scholarship helped pave the way, he said.

“The scholarships have helped a lot,” he said. “And the fact that I received them are also affirmations that I am doing good things. The donors are investing in creating a better world, and I’m just trying to be a part of that.”

With one last year of course work to complete before graduation, McDonald has started to think about his future. Although interested in direct practice, he sees his journey eventually guiding him toward macro work and perhaps to a program that offers treatment to families dealing with addiction.

“Recovery advocacy will always be a part of my life,” he said. “Addiction is a chronic, progressive and fatal brain disease with no known cure. Yet, here I thrive in sustained remission for over 10 years. We get well. We get better than well. Why would I want to keep that to myself?”

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