Voices from the Field: Improving Mental Health with Physical Activity
Voices from the Field: A Blog Series
Improving Mental Health with Physical Activity
When your organization is in the business of bringing people together, how do you operate during a pandemic? For Jacki Hillios, deputy executive director for The Phoenix, the answer is to double down on your mission, values, and sense of purpose.
Hillios is the cofounder of a nonprofit with a rapidly growing footprint. More than 40 locations spread across the country comprise The Phoenix, a sober community with a focus on physical activity. Since 2006, Hillios and founder Scott Strode have built an organization leveraging the transformative power of community and fitness as a way to help people recover, heal, and move on from addiction and substance use.
“What that really means is that we leverage fun and hope as a way to get people to walk through the door,” Hillios said. “Our programming is free for anyone with 48 hours of sobriety.”
In March 2020, when a vast majority of their locations were forced to close due to COVID-19, Hillios and her leadership team knew they had no choice but to pivot. She looks back on that time as “devastating.”
“We knew why people needed to come to us, what they were going through, and what was going to happen if they didn’t have a connection to the community that’s helping them stay sober and recover,” Hillios said. The conditions of the pandemic have been especially deadly to those already prone to substance use disorders, she added.
In the work she has done to continue reaching The Phoenix’s expanding community, as well as maintaining her own well-being throughout the pandemic, Hillios has found resolve in her principles: staying connected, staying present, and staying active.
The Phoenix is nearly synonymous with “family” in Hillios’ vocabulary. She often jokes that the organization found her, and not the other way around. Before she was in a position of nonprofit leadership, she was a mental health clinician. As she advanced in her health care profession, she increasingly noticed the barriers people faced in receiving the care and support they needed.
“Less than 10 percent of people who need care can access it,” she remarked. “And I know for me, personally, I went into the clinical world to save lives and really give back.”
Hillios grew disheartened in her professional life, but her love of climbing and being outdoors kept her energized and moving forward. Strode was a friend and climbing partner of hers.
“I felt like my world revolved around my climbing community,” said Hillios. “So when Scott said he wanted to do something to leverage what had worked for him in finding sobriety – climbing and staying active - I told him it was a no-brainer.”
She immediately understood Strode’s vision to help people get the help they need when they need it – taking what they had developed together through climbing and bringing it to substance use recovery. In the 15 years since those conversations, Hillios has executed that vision. Today, staff and volunteers across the country follow Hillios’ lead in creating welcoming spaces for people to find a path to recovery on their own terms.
“We want everybody who walks in to feel like they’re part of the family,” Hillios said. “We want to make sure that, regardless of the pathway people choose for themselves, they feel welcomed.”
In 2020, responding to the circumstances of the pandemic, Hillios has led The Phoenix to not just survive as an organization, but thrive. Within two days of the national state of emergency being declared, The Phoenix launched live virtual classes focused on mindfulness and fitness. Eventually, many of the classes became available on-demand.
With every city, county, and state approaching restrictions differently, Hillios said the goal has been to provide as diverse of access as possible to keep people engaged, motivated, and interacting. “But when we can be in person, we are in person,” she added. “Whenever we have the ability to do live programming outside, like hiking, running, and even CrossFit, we’re doing that with our members.”
The Phoenix is offering more than 60 live-streamed classes each week, in every state, and the diversity of delivery that now exists has Hillios pushing for a mobile app to be developed, to create a rallying point for members spread across social media. Hillios added that the amount of on-demand content available through The Phoenix has been a game-changer for their partnerships with treatment centers and prisons. The organization has a presence in 140 prisons across the United States.
Hillios says The Phoenix is on track to nearly double its cumulative reach in 2021. She knows people need a sense of community now more than ever as overdose fatalities rise across the country and the pandemic’s conditions endure. “We’ve been determined to innovate and test different strategies, to figure out how we can get past COVID’s challenges and continue serving people who need The Phoenix the most,” she said.
As with most people, Hillios feels like her life was thrown sideways by the pandemic. Early on, she was especially concerned about her seven-year-old daughter feeling lonely and isolated, being an only child not able to see her friends. It led The Phoenix’s cofounder to reflect on what’s important. “What’s most important for The Phoenix is the same thing for me during this pandemic, in that I have to have hope and I have to be connected with people,” Hillios said. “Social distancing means standing six feet away, it doesn’t mean not connecting.”
In addition to the virtual measures keeping The Phoenix’s members, staff, and volunteers connected, the organization integrated weekly wellness checks with an emphasis on self-care, working with a variety of partners to provide services for those who feel they’re struggling.
“Connecting with other people who are doing really good work, and share our vision, is the only way we can take care of our staff, volunteers, and members we serve,” Hillios said.
Looking after her daughter has kept her grounded, in the present, Hillios went on to say. A seven-year-old isn’t thinking about tomorrow or yesterday. “Frankly, she wants to go fishing or swimming or play card games,” Hillios remarked. “She’s where I find a lot of resilience in my life.”
At The Phoenix, Hillios finds resilience every day in working with the most inspiring people she has met, she said. Looking at what the people around her have overcome, endured, and rallied back from only inspires her to put one foot in front of the other.
“This past year has taught me to double down on what I know and what I’ve learned from The Phoenix,” Hillios said. “I’ve come to realize that these people around me are the magic of overcoming this pandemic.”
She has a story from when the nonprofit was in its infancy, and she went to a rock climbing gym with a young woman recovering from an addiction to methamphetamines. Hillios was lead climbing.
“I can climb anything because I do not let go and I do not fall,” she said. “I’m a big chicken, but part of pushing yourself in climbing is taking some risks. Sometimes, you have to take a risk and fall.” As she was pushing up the wall, the young woman below was feeding rope, watching Hillios’ stilted progress.
“She yelled up to me, ‘If I can get off meth, you can fall,’” Hillios recalled. “It’s memories like that where you’re reminded that if someone can achieve that – if they can overcome the harms of their addiction – you can get up and move forward.”
Hope, connections, and putting one foot in front of the other – those three ideas are what The Phoenix has taught Hillios and thousands of others who have walked through its doors, or logged on to participate through the pandemic.
“If you can stay connected, you will find hope, and you won’t be doing it alone,” Hillios said. “If you have those things and you keep moving, I believe you can overcome anything.”