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Providence, RI: Jim Gillen

Providence, RI: Jim Gillen
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Jim Gillen
Providence, Rhode Island

It’s hard to find sympathy for a heroin addict. But sympathy is just what Jim “Catfish” Gillen gives to those trying to recover — as well as heaping helpings of love, support, and encouragement, with a little music thrown in for good measure.

On Friday afternoons, musicians drift into the CODACII Behavioral Healthcare center in Providence to jam, rehearse, and do informal group therapy with Jim. Paul, a wiry Willie Nelson look-alike, tunes a guitar while a man named Mike thumbs a red bass. David, who has played with Chubby Checker and Britney Spears, drops by. These are a few of the World-Famous CODAC All-Stars, a motley rock band composed of recovering heroin addicts and their counselors.

Throughout the year, the group plays at retirement homes, recovery festivals, and other substance-abuse clinics around the state. “I want to put a positive face on the methadone patient,” says Jim, who believes the band’s performances speak eloquently about recovery. “If we show just one person that there’s hope, then we’ve done something.”

From childhood, Jim learned traditional Seneca storytelling at his great aunt’s knee, and he went on to spend three decades spinning Native American-inspired tales across North America and Europe, using music to bring them to life. He became a substance-abuse counselor later in life at a friend’s suggestion. His worlds quickly collided when he joined the staff of CODAC four years ago. The All-Stars, an art therapy experiment in progress, was born.

David, addicted to heroin for 25 years, says playing in the band helped him stick with his recovery program when he first came to CODAC. “With treatment and recovery, everything was so new. The music made me feel welcome, safe.” Now clean for three years, David says, “Playing is a way for me to give back to the community.”

Jim’s office, decked with Native American rugs, incense, and a stocked candy dish, is a popular hangout. Add to that the All-Stars, storytelling gigs on weekends, and a back room packed with donated sheets, clothing, and furniture awaiting new homes ( “I help get things to people who are trying to get back on their feet,” he says), and his days are very long. His passion is giving people a chance. “Everyone deserves a shot,” he says. Some of his patients have gone on to have counseling careers themselves, “but even someone just living a regular life is a success story.”

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