Recovery program to benefit from Virginia governor’s grant

The money will help Washingtonian Society reach more students, says Kirk Luder


Dr. Kirk Luder meets with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. Photo courtesy of Josh Gross.

Jin Ni

Washington and Lee University is one of several schools that will benefit from a grant from Governor Ralph Northam designed to develop recovery programs to fight substance abuse on college campuses. 

The $675,000 grant was given to Virginia Commonwealth University in late October. VCU already has a program called Rams in Recovery in place. The university will use its program to guide eight schools across Virginia in developing their own recovery communities, including: Longwood University, Radford University, University of Mary Washington, University of Richmond, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia Union University, and Washington and Lee. 

“Young people who are often living away from home for the first time can be particularly vulnerable, and college campuses can be difficult places if you’re trying to avoid drinking or using substances,” Northam said in a press release. 

“Collegiate recovery programs provide critical resources to help students in recovery have a successful college experience and give them the tools they need to be healthy and thriving, well beyond graduation.”

Kirk Luder, a staff supervisor for Washington and Lee’s collegiate recovery program, the Washingtonian Society, said he was stunned but excited and grateful when he heard they received the grant. 

“This money gives us the flexibility to make enhancements we couldn’t manage otherwise,” Luder said.

Luder joined the University Counseling Center as a staff psychiatrist and full-time clinician in 2004 after serving as the university’s consulting psychiatrist for five years.

The grant was funded by federal State Opioid Response (SOR) efforts, a larger national program developed to fight the opioid epidemic and other substance abuse across the nation.

In Virginia, 1,500 people died last year of drug overdoses. Northam said addiction, and drug overdoses specifically, has become one of the state’s biggest challenges.

“Our college campuses and universities are no exception to this,” he said in a speech when presenting the grant. “This is a challenge that doesn’t discriminate.”

The Rams in Recovery program will serve as the model for other universities covered under the grant.

Rams in Recovery Program Coordinator Tom Bannard said the VCU collegiate recovery program started with just a couple of students. 

“We saw the impact almost immediately, as the university and individual donors invested more in the program,” Bannard said. “Students thrive once you start supporting them in recovery. Their success attracts other struggling students into the program and they motivate other people in recovery to come back to school.” 

At Washington and Lee, the Washingtonian Society started seven years ago as a small group of students who got together to talk about substance abuse. During the first three years, the group was small, with only four to eight students participating, and they met once a week.

In 2016, the Washingtonian House was created.

With the help of Sidney Evans, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, and Dave Leonard, dean of student life, the recovery residence was set up as formal gathering space for the Washingtonian Society and for students in recovery to live and grow together.

Since then, students involved in the group have committed time and energy to outreach and support, and the group has grown over the years.

Last year, the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) program awarded the Washingtonian Society the “Best Student Organization” award. 

“Being part of Washingtonian has redirected my life to be one of healing and growth,” said Katie Evans, ‘22, the social event chair for the group. “It’s given me the support system I needed to grow and thrive on campus, and a healthier environment to be in when I’m having a hard time or want to be social but not drink or use.”

Over the next two years, each of the eight schools will receive support in the manner of site visits, daylong retreats and monthly collaboration calls to help develop the programs. This includes expanding outreach strategies, leadership training, and coordinating on-campus services.

Luder said he hopes to expand the program beyond a peer support group for alcohol or substance abuse to a thriving social hub on campus.

He also hopes to reach out to diverse students, especially students of color, international students, and LGBTQ+ students, who may already feel marginalized on campus — a problem that can be made worse if they choose not to drink or use. 

“My overall goal is to have it be just as easy, inexpensive, and fun for students in Washingtonian to have enjoyable social connections as students who choose to drink or use,” Luder said. “What I mean by this is that if you’re a drinking W&L student, all you have to do is find out which frat is hosting a party and show up to be able to have fun and hang out with your friends. I want it to be just as easy for this student group.”