Faith a key to recovery at Learn to Fish

Heroin epidemic nearly doubles need for services at Learn to Fish

Sabrina Crain-Sweeney, Learn to Fish executive director/CEO, talks about the faith-based nonprofit.
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Sabrina Crain-Sweeney, Learn to Fish executive director/CEO, talks about the faith-based nonprofit.

Stacey Yesnick has been in and out of rehab and treatment facilities since she was 14. Every time, the Manatee County resident would relapse once she got out.

But the 50-year-old is hopeful that after her time at Learn to Fish, a faith-based nonprofit residential recovery center for women and children, it will be different.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve found out a lot about myself,” said Yesnick, a recovering heroin addict who has overdosed. “I find that it is a very supportive environment because it’s all women. It’s changing my life. There is so much to get from this place. This one is so different because of the all-women aspect.”

I have so much hope. I’m surrendered. I’m not looking back. There is too much to live for. I have to be an example of recovery.

Stacey Yesnick, Learn to Fish resident

Since 2007, more than 1,000 women have graduated from the Learn to Fish recovery program, which helps the individuals “heal from the devastation associated with being a victim of many types of abuse, sex trafficking and the substance abuse that ensues in an attempt to numb their pain,” according to the nonprofit’s website.

But as the heroin epidemic continues to plague Manatee County, the nonprofit during the last 10 months has had to turn away women for the first time due to lack of resources to meet the growing needs. Currently 13 women are in the program but the nonprofit, which almost all women it serves have overdosed on heroin, is unable to fill the empty beds due to lack of funding.

“The women we serve are the percent of our population who have had things happen to them that most go through life thinking only happens on movies or TV,” said Sabrina Crain-Sweeney, the nonprofit’s executive director/CEO. “These ladies are so incredibly strong. They are intelligent. They are beautiful.”

‘It was all God’

In what started as class in Sarasota, Learn to Fish has grown into something much larger, which makes Crain-Sweeney still tear up. In 2012, Manatee County conveyed the house and property to the nonprofit, which turned the dilapidated property with the help of lots of donations including appliances, windows and a roof, into the recovery center it is today.

“I get really emotional,” she said. “We all worked so hard and it was such a special time, such a feeling of unity in the air and love for what we were doing and love for the next girl even if we didn’t know who next girl was. We knew things were happening that didn’t happen everyday. There was absolutely no question in anyone’s mind that it was all God.”

Volunteering at the Manatee County jail more than 10 years ago highlighted the problem and a need for a recovery center for women in the county to Crain-Sweeney.

“I could tell there was a problem,” she said. “There was a huge problem with opioid addiction. I wanted to put something together that was high-quality treatment, the kind of treatment necessary to recover.”

And at the core of that successful treatment is faith, Crain-Sweeney said.

“In my opinion, I don’t think anybody can truly recover without having faith in God, knowing there is a divine being who you can depend on, who truly loves you and has your best interest in heart,” she said.

The fact that the nonprofit is faith-based has been important in the recovery process for Yesnick.

“I believe in God,” she said. “I have so much hope. I’m surrendered. I’m not looking back. There is too much to live for. I have to be an example of recovery.”

For 36-year-old Jessi Clark, a recovering addict also in the program, faith has been key.

“I got to start a journey with Him and I got to know Him,” she said. “Things started happening once I started believing. I believed and trusted.”

Not receiving any regular funding from local or state government, the only barrier standing in the way of Learn to Fish being able to help more women is resources. It costs approximately $3,300 per women and more than $200,000 annually to operate the nonprofit.

The nonprofit has a property behind Daughtrey Elementary School to renovate for additional housing, but the renovations are on hold until the nonprofit can find a commercial space at a discounted rate to move the furniture into and reopen the nonprofit’s thrift store as another revenue source.

Thanks to a total $10,000 donation from organizations on Anna Maria Island — Anna Maria Island Women’s Giving Circle of Manatee Community Foundation and the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation — the nonprofit has the funds for renovations.

“We were very impressed with the mission here and really wanted to see what was going on here take off and flourish,” said Father Matthew Grunfeld. “This is an organization that is really working to make a difference.”

Judy Bennett with both the giving circle as well as a church member said the building renovations is something that is sustainable.

“It’s an investment in a facility that will help a lot of women going forward,” she said.

Anna Maria resident Carol Carter added: “This facility will be that transitional facility that they sorely need.”

Being a small part in someone’s journey to regain hope and healing is amazing, said Crain-Sweeney.

“The joy that you get from watching someone come in here completely broken being able to watch them recover, being able to watch the light come back in eyes is a joy that you can’t get anywhere else,” she said. “It’s like ring side seat to a miracle.”

Claire Aronson: 941-745-7024, @Claire_Aronson

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