Written by Michael Richardson
After a few turns off the freeway, I was pretty sure I was lost. Warehouses lined the street to my left and right, and it wasn’t looking like a pleasant part of town. But then I saw the Fit to Recover (FTR) sign, with light beaming out of the windows and bustling within.
A weights class was underway on the main floor, so I explored the rest of the building. New paint work, quality weight equipment, a climbing wall under construction; the place has a nice feel. But looking closely, I could tell the structure has felt the years. The Fit to Recover team has transformed a worn old building into a thriving community center for people recovering from addiction.
Pretty much every person I talked to there was like the building in some way or another. One had lost custody of her children due to drug addiction, but now has joint custody and leads volunteer service projects for community members. Another lost six years of her life to heroin, but has been clean for years and recently coordinated the monumental effort with the Petzl Foundation and Momentum Climbing to get a climbing wall for the gym. The whole place is a testament to the possibility of change.
Ian Acker, the founder and leader of FTR, has a similar story. Once the captain of his college soccer team, Ian fell into drugs and alcohol because he felt no commonality with people around him, felt judged and didn’t feel good enough. After various treatment centers and relapses, Ian finally found ways to sustain his recovery.
“Treatment got me thinking somewhat clearly,” he says. “Purpose is what made sobriety stick for me.”
FTR strives to distribute purpose to whoever wants it. Under the FTR community umbrella, some find purpose in fitness and properly nourishing their bodies. Others find purpose in FTR service ventures, while some discover purpose in creative endeavors. Captivating murals line the FTR walls, and upstairs is a recording booth that provides a means for expression.
Photo Credit: Ryan Chase
As Ian was coming out of recovery he learned about the masses of treatment centers in Utah, and saw a void. He realized that while treatment is vital, many people aren’t sure what to do with their lives afterwards, which is why relapse occurs. A lack of purpose destroys good intentions.
“You go to treatment, and then what are you supposed to do?” he says.
For people who’ve used alcohol and drugs to cope with life’s challenges for years, when new challenges arise, they often don’t have the toolset or the support to cope in healthy ways.
Ian interned with a fitness center for recovering addicts in Colorado, and became fixed in his determination to provide something for those struggling in Utah.
“I said ‘I’m going to build one because Salt Lake City needs one,’” Ian says. “I went to Best Buy and I made what seemed to be the biggest purchase of my life, which was $500 on a boom box, which felt entirely too much. But then I was invested.”
That first boot camp in Sugarhouse Park had 4-5 people, but it was the beginning of something that would quickly grow. Now they have their own building and hundreds of participants in a variety of activities, including a fitness program, community service, a women’s recovery group, nutrition classes, and more. Ian says about 70 percent of people who come are in recovery. Every newcomer is embraced by people who can express sincere empathy, and strong relationships are formed. Successful recovery is nearly impossible without relationships, as any recovering addict will testify. Ian knows this is vital aspect of what he’s trying to build.
While Ian is an engine and an inspiration, he willingly admits that FTR is not his creation alone. People came out of the woodwork to help, volunteering their skills, often without pay, because they believe in the effectiveness of the FTR approach.
Take Steph, a registered dietician who teaches nutrition classes at FTR and helps run Food to Recover, the nutrition side of FTR. During the day, she works full time for the Utah Department of Health doing inspections of nursing homes. When asked why she’d give her time to FTR, she seemed almost surprised at the question.
“I’ve only been in Utah for about a year and a half,” she says. “I’m looking to find my place in Utah, to be connected to the community, to be part of something bigger than myself. This is a golden opportunity.”
In January she and other volunteering dieticians are putting together an FTR class on pre- and post-workout meals. Nutrition matters in recovery for many reasons, she explains, because of physical wellbeing, and because eating right is largely a matter of psychological strength, which everyone there is trying to build.
Francisca, who writes grants for FTR, joined the team through a happy twist of fate. She has been an activist for many years and on one occasion, she decided to organize a hike to raise awareness for mental illness. Meanwhile, Rachel, FTR’s volunteer coordinator, was looking for things the FTR community could do, and decided the hike was a good idea. It turned out that FTR people were the only ones who showed up, and a bond was formed.
“I was just blown away at how open they were and how grateful they were for the hike,” Francisca says. “It was just amazing.”
Francisca is quick to point out FTR’s 501c3 nonprofit status, no small feat for any organization. She believes in the great potential of FTR.
“My first thought when I found FTR was ‘this is the perfect model for any community-based organization,’” Francisca said.
You can feel the belief flowing through the place. And the community is catching on. FTR already receives referrals from three treatment centers, and as I’m was writing this article, FTR received a five figure donation which will provide scholarships for low-income clients from county residential treatment programs.
Passion runs deep through the veins of FTR, as does camaraderie. I could sense it in every person I talked to, and especially when I spoke with the leadership as a whole. I was with them on a Friday evening, when society says it’s time to be out on the town, but here were a group of individuals happy to be with each other, happy to talk about this thing that had given them a profound sense of fulfillment.
They all praised Ian, even expressing genuine love for him. His caring leadership style stems from his dislike for the top-to-bottom, do-what-I-say approach.
“I’ve been fired or quit every job I’ve ever had,” he says, “solely because I felt like someone was talking down to me, and I don’t ever want people to feel like that. I want to empower people.”
He found purpose in his life: to give purpose to others. He has the unique talent of nurturing people to follow through with their own ideas, without being the typical boss. Lacey organizes the group for women in recovery, Rachel plans trips to feed the homeless, and Sarah does the creative classes, and it’s obvious that they are each doing it because they want to, not because Ian told them to.
And Ian’s leadership hasn’t produced some rag-tag community center. He has registered dietitians teaching classes, and a certified weight lifting instructor, James, leading the fitness classes. The education and the programs are as legitimate as the relationships being formed.
Ian is emotional in expressing deepest gratitude for the people who’ve entered his life to build FTR. He freely admits his talents alone would not be enough, not by a long shot.
Trust and friendship, which permeate the entire organization, are perhaps the most important things for those in recovery, says the FTR leadership team, most of whom were in recovery themselves at one point. Those recovering from alcohol and substance abuse need a place where they will not be judged, where peers are invested in their success, and where they are given opportunities for positive endeavors. But places like this are rare, which makes FTR a spark we all hope catches fire.