Rick Andrews is the coordinator for the Positive Reinforcement Opportunity Project (PROP), a substance use treatment and counseling program for gay, bi, and trans men and other men who have sex with men who wish to stop or reduce their use of crystal meth or cocaine. In the five years since Andrews started coordinating the program, he’s brought increasing numbers of men into the program — and in some cases, helped to keep them on afterwards as volunteers or paid staff.
“There have been a lot of success stories from PROP,” Andrews says. “Many people have made lasting and positive changes — not always total abstinence — bringing them to a safer and healthier place in their lives.”
Andrews has been able to start — and expand — the PROP program over the years to meet the varied and extensive needs of his clients. With over 70 men enrolled since July of this year, and over 400 since the program’s inception, he’s obviously doing something right.
His impact on PROP even extends to his transformation of the group’s physical meeting space. Andrews converts a conference room at the foundation — referred to internally by San Francisco AIDS Foundation staff as the “fishbowl”— into the PROP lounge three times a week. The fluorescent-lit conference room becomes a homey, welcoming space where his clients can gather — with a circle of chairs arranged in the center of the room, soft ambient light glowing from a lamp in the corner, a coffee station beckoning from the corner, and one wall lined with neatly-arranged referrals and reading material.
His goal is to create a safe space for his clients where they’re comfortable meeting new people, talking about their drug use, and making friends to support them in the coming months.
Andrews serves PROP clients by conducting group meetings, where he — and his fellow staff and team of volunteers — support clients in a variety of ways.
“Coming off speed is difficult,” says Andrews. “It’s not a linear path for most men who come to us for support. A lot of guys we see are pretty beat up when they first come in, and it can take time for them to heal. They may be dealing with homelessness, not having health care, mental health issues, or low self-esteem.”
Andrews helps guys who would like to stop, manage, or limit their use of speed. PROP is designed to reward clients with financial incentives who are able to not use speed at all (e.g., it rewards compete abstinence). But Andrews explains that, because the foundation supports clients using a harm reduction philosophy, PROP accepts clients with any substance use goals in a non-shaming way.
“We accept guys regardless of what their use has been like. Even for those who aren’t ready for abstinence, it’s still a safe place to experiment [with stopping or changing drug use]. They’ll get love and respect from us, no matter what. Everyone coming through our door is special to us.”
Andrews helps clients address bigger issues like housing and health care during PROP groups by helping clients make a plan for themselves or giving referrals to other foundation services, such as Positive Force. He’s always happy to discuss other health issues, too, such as nutrition, HIV (he used to volunteer at Magnet as an HIV test counselor), or wound care. “We work with guys to figure out what’s giving them the most discomfort right now. And we try to get them to work on these things in a non-threatening or overwhelming way. You can make profound changes — when you feel accepted and have the right support.”
In addition to working with guys on substance use and health care issues, Andrews brings his background and expertise in self-care to his many clients. Part of his own recovery involved getting back in touch with his body and learning how to properly care for it. Which is why he completed a yoga instructor class and has ample experience in holistic health activities like meditation and acupuncture.
“For our men who are struggling with stimulant use, self-care is so important. For some, it’s a completely new concept. It’s so satisfying to see guys who come in for our services start to take better care of themselves,” he says.
Four years ago, he started the Healing Arts drop-in group at the foundation. The group weekly group holds acupuncture and massage sessions on a regular basis. For two years, Andrews even taught yoga to the group one night a week. Now, he hosts a book club on Buddha’s Brain, where he encourages clients to learn and discuss the power of how mindfulness practices can improve the quality of their lives.
Understanding the power of social support, Andrews saw an opportunity to further help graduates of PROP. Because the group fosters close social ties and friendship, he wanted to help group members maintain new friendships past the timeframe of the 12-week program. So, he established an “alumni group” for PROP — which allows previous (and current, if they wish) members a chance to socialize. It means an extra three hours a week that Andrews is in a group session. But, he says, “it’s an honor to sit next to people who are giving you everything they have and not sugar-coating it. Who trust you enough, who feel safe enough with you, to talk. That’s a huge motivation for me.”
It’s easy for Andrews to see the effect that PROP has on his clients. Many have such a positive experience going through the program that they either donate the money they have made back to the program or give back by serving as PROP peer support volunteers — helping to counsel new clients, doing drug testing, or setting up the room before the group arrives. He’s also witnessed many of his clients get jobs during (or because of) their involvement in PROP. He points to several examples of men who used their PROP volunteer experience to enter careers in health education or counseling.
“I’m really proud of everyone who walks through our door, it is not easy work to do regardless of their goals. There is not one day that I don’t learn something new from these amazing and beautiful men.”
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