Story by Anne Donahue
RUTLAND – Walt Wade, a longtime advocate for youth and those with addictions who joined Vermont Psychiatric Survivors in 2020, has been named its new Executive Director.
He said his vision is “making VPS the agency that it should be” that “advocates [for] and protects people who can’t help themselves right now.”
“I remember being there,” he told Counterpoint. Counterpoint is published by VPS.
Wade identifies as a survivor who has been “through a whole life and all phases of addiction.”
There was a time in his life that he said he didn’t care about anyone else.
It was on March 12, 1982 that a moment in time changed his life. He went to drink at his usual bar and saw three men sitting at the same three seats where they sat every single day.
“Wow, that’s going to be me.”
He called the AA hotline. He is now 41 years sober.
At the same time, he went from “taking advantage of everybody” to becoming “driven to help other people.”
“It was so strange to me,” he said.
Since then, he and his wife have been foster parents for some 40 years and adopted four of the teens who were in their care.
One of them died three years ago of an overdose, bringing the addiction crisis home once again.
Foster care started when he was asked to “do a favor” and take in a youth in crisis who needed a place for the weekend. Seven months later, he was still there.
“Our house was wild,” with as many as seven teenage boys living there at one time in a crisis placement. The youngest was nine, and he was one of the boys that Wade and his wife, Mary, adopted at age 13.
For 19 years, Wade worked for Rutland High School as the in-house suspension supervisor – a job he said he loved.
“It was all the kids who acted like me” when he was younger, he said.
Meanwhile, he got his bachelor’s degree in human services.
In 2020, two weeks before the COVID pandemic closed down the state, Wade started a new job as the peer support outreach coordinator at VPS. Because everything changed with COVID, and hospitals were no longer accessible for offering peer support, the position lost its clear focus.
“COVID kind of changed what we did,” he said.
Wade ended up taking on assorted roles helping with the VPS community links project in Rutland and with supporting individuals staying in the emergency hotel program.
“It has been eye-opening,” he said. “The thing I found… we had many, many people that were going to get left out” once the emergency ended. The resources now available don’t match with the needs of those who will be losing their hotel placements when the budget ends on July 1.
That crisis will require agencies around the state to work together to build a stronger system, and Wade wants VPS to become an active part of collaboration.
He wants to “show them that I care what we do as an agency and as a state… advocating for people in the state who are having a hard time.”
Wade pointed to one of the personal experiences he had doing outreach in being able to see what is possible.
Through another contact, he learned about a young woman who was sleeping in her care with her 5-and7-year-old daughters in November. She was too afraid to ask for help out of fear that the Department of Children and Families would take the girls away from her.
Wade told her, “If you let me help you, they’re not going to take your kids.” He got her into a hotel, and she was able to find part-time work.
“She’s an excellent, excellent mother,” he said. “I believe she’s going to make it.”
He told her how proud he was of her, and she started crying.
“No one’s ever told me they were proud of me,” she said.
The challenges are harder when also dealing with the stigmatization of people with mental health diagnoses, Wade said, and he wants to make people more aware of those obstacles. VPS has an opportunity to make a difference for them, he added.
The staff at VPS all “know what it’s like to feel hopeless [and] looked at like ‘less than.’”
“It just kills me to see someone doing so well” and then see symptoms “kick up” but being unable to get help because of waiting lists.
Wade said it used to take several calls to connect someone with help, but now, even after eight or nine calls or more, he might still be unable to find the right services.
VPS is now getting back into hospital units to offer peer representative support, and there’s a lot of need to rebuild relationships, Wade noted. Staff have changed on both sides, and many of the nursing staff are “travelers,” meaning they are hired under temporary contracts.
“They have no clue” what VPS patient representatives are, he added.
VPS needs to rebuild its advocacy role as well, Wade said.
“We need to be in the middle of it,” he said. “You may help one person,” but that means there are likely 100 more facing the same challenges.
Wade said that includes being a voice in the legislature. The VPS board vice president, Zack Hughes, began testifying this spring on critical rights issues.
An example Wade pointed to was a bill that would allow people who are waiting for care in an emergency department to be arrested if they get out-of-control.
“Nobody deserves to [go to] work and get hit and spit at,” he acknowledged, but people in a mental health crisis “are not their real selves” and “we’re punishing them.”
He wants VPS to advocate “where people with mental health [labels] are getting short-changed.”
If the legislature “is making a law that hurts people, how is that ever right?”
He wants VPS to be an agency that “helps make laws that help” instead.
“People shouldn’t be punished for having a mental illness,” he noted.
Another example is the number of additional locked beds being added to the system, including plans for a new forensic unit.
That kind of planning is “probably because it’s easier” than building a stronger system of community supports, he reflected.
But, “how does it help?”