The Citizen Spotlight is a project I started with the Oklahoma Gazette. In each issue, we highlight a person in our community who stands out for their leadership, kindness, and good deeds. Read it on the Oklahoma Gazette website here.
Harlan Hubbard of Refuge Recovery and Empower
The road to recovery can be paved with hardships. Harlan Hubbard wants to help people along their journey, no matter how theirs may be cobbled.
He spends his time mentoring those recovering from addiction with Refuge Recovery and shares his love for cooking by teaching culinary classes at The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) facility, hoping to give incarcerated individuals a true sense of hope and empowerment upon their release, with the mission breaking the cycle many people find themselves stuck in.
“A lot of people define themselves by their drug of choice or alcoholism or drug addiction; that’s who they become,” Hubbard said. “Breaking that down and helping them understand, that’s not who they are, they don’t have to be that person, and it doesn’t define them, psychologically, that’s very important.”
For 17 years, Harlan has worked with programs like Refuge Recovery to maintain his own sobriety, and it’s here where he helps others keep theirs. Refuge offers a Buddhist-inspired approach to treating addictions, offering daily recovery programs that include meetings, meditation, mentorship, retreats, and more. It’s open to all who wish to pursue and maintain an addiction-free life.
“When COVID slowed things down, I decided, going forward with my life, I’m going to do things that I really want to do versus trying to make money,” Hubbard said. “So I started volunteering up at TEEM and helping them in their kitchen. I started teaching with their Empower classes, which focus on reentry, the culinary portion of that. Then it just grew because of some wonderful donors wanting to expand the program, and the food bank has gotten involved as well. They have a tremendous facility, and they’ve been a beautiful partner. The ladies come to the food bank four days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. During this three-week course, they come out there and not only learn culinary skills, but they get to provide meals for the community, including seniors and children.”
Oklahoma has some of the highest incarceration rates in the country, with few rehabilitation services available to help them get back on their feet upon release. Organizations like TEEM offer reentry programs like Empower that help make the transition easier.
“It’s not easy, right? It’s intense, hard work, very demanding on time. It could just be back of the house doing nothing. It’s really inspiring and heartwarming. None of it has anything to do with me though. None of it, really, I’m just helping.”
And he’s helping a lot. Harlan is working on developing 1024 CAKE, a program for men transitioning out of incarceration and helping them end the cycle of recidivism.
“CAKE stands for Compassion, Awareness, Kindness, and Experience. Starting out, this program will be for men, and hopefully, it grows and expands into females. … The main reason that we chose to focus on males is there’s this dynamic of 18- to 24-year-old males in Oklahoma County that kind of fall through the cracks, like those in the foster system. Once they turn 18 [years old], there are no services. There are big issues with fines and revolving people in Oklahoma County Jail. They get stuck in this revolving door of having some substance abuse problems, perhaps mental health issues, and they get arrested. They can’t make bail, so then they get charges and fines. Then they get out of the system and have nowhere to go. Then they get arrested again, more fines and charges. It’s a never-ending cycle. So part of our vision for CAKE is to help men reduce fines in the form of raising money with donors, working in our kitchen, working in our community, and being paid at a higher wage so they can pay off their fines. It makes no sense to pay them $10 an hour; it isn’t sufficient to take care of their fines. This is like a regular job at a much higher wage, but it must go towards their fines. … It allows young men coming out of jail or prison to establish a trade and to put food out into the community. I have a passion for feeding people in a good way and making sure people are getting fed here. Oklahoma City has a huge problem with that; there’s not a lot of awareness around the need. Even in homes with two working parents, the kids are still hungry, and it’s not that they’re not working.”
It’s easy to witness the intense care Harlan has for the work he does. But being a mentor, leader, and confidant isn’t always easy. You build deep relationships when working in recovery, and it can be heartbreaking.
“It doesn’t always make you feel good. Sometimes it makes you feel horrible. In the 17 years of these mentorships, eight of those men are no longer with us,” Hubbard said. “That I had personal relationships with, that had dinner in my house, met my children, they don’t walk on the planet anymore. But it’s not about feeling good. It’s about surviving. I do it because it does bring joy and brings heartache and pain, a whole lot of things, but hopefully the joy always outweighs. And it does, because when you see someone recover and change who they were because they were a drug addict or an alcoholic, and they’re no longer in that pool, they’ve recovered and changed their life around, that’s joyful for sure.”
What keeps him going despite such challenging experiences, Harlan’s answer is simple:
“It’s more about what I was taught. Whatever I have, I got to give it away in order to keep it. The largest part of my own recovery is mentorship. I just want to change one. I mean, that’s the main goal, just continue to help and stay sane and sober myself. If I have the ability to affect someone’s life, just change one person, it’s all worth it.”