Photo by Chris Rogers
Thirteen years sober herself, Winonan Kathy Sublett helps others find the resources they need to recover from addiction.

Advocating for recovering Winonans


"… I am one of them. It meant everything to me to represent change."

Kathy Sublett


Kathy Sublett knows. Recovery is not easy. First someone has to want to change. Then there are a hundred steps to line up, hoops to jump through, temptations and setbacks to weather.

“I think people don’t realize it’s not just as simple as making a phone call and saying, ‘Hey, I want to get clean. I want to go to treatment,’” Winona County Jail Intake Coordinator Trish Chandler said. “It’s a whole process of, well, do you have insurance? If you do, is your insurance current?” Will the insurance cover a chemical-dependency assessment? If not, will the county fund one? What treatment center can the person go to? “That all takes time,” Chandler said. “What happens with a lot is people with chemical dependency or mental illness, they go to make those calls, and then they get frustrated because of the waiting, the whole process. It’s frustrating. So having someone to support you, to walk you through that, and when you do get frustrated to be kind of rooting you on, it makes a big difference.”

For many local people trying to recover from addiction, Sublett has made that difference. She is a certified peer support specialist. Thirteen years sober herself, Sublett now helps other people through the process of getting help. She currently volunteers with Winona County Treatment Court as a sponsor — a sort of peer mentor — for people in recovery. When Sublett visits someone in jail, their experience isn’t just something she’s read about in textbooks or observed from a distance. “I used to be sitting there in that same seat, in that same orange jump suit you’re sitting in now,” she tells them.

“The extent that she went to for clients was phenomenal,” Winona County Treatment Court Coordinator Carin Hyter said of Sublett. Hyter recalled a treatment court participant whom Sublett gave a ride to a treatment center where he was entering rehab — four hours away.
Sublett is dogged about finding ways to get people what they need, Hyter stated. “Adamant,” Hyter called her. “She is very, very devoted to what she’s doing,” Winona County Jail Sergeant Dave Glithero said.

“I’m known as a digger because I don’t just stop at ‘no,’” Sublett said. “Why? What is it you would need to say, ‘yes?’”

Finding housing is a big challenge for many people getting out of treatment or jail because landlords often do not want to rent to someone with a criminal record. To find a place for one of her clients to live, Sublett said she went door-to-door — a black woman, she stressed, knocking on strangers’ doors in Caledonia to ask, “Would you give my client housing?”
“But I did it,” Sublett said. It worked.

Another time, Sublett recalled one her clients was getting out of jail in Winona. “He wore a size-17 shoe, XXL clothing, and he didn’t have any shoes,” she said. With little money, finding size-17 shoes was a challenge. Without shoes, finding a job was even harder. However, Sublett wrote to Red Wing Shoes and the company donated a size-17 boot that was worth over $400, she said. “That boot will last that young man three or four years,” Sublett stated.

Most social workers have too many cases to drive their clients to appointments hours away, go door-to-door searching for housing, or make a Hail Mary bid for some work boots. “So much of this system is, ‘Well, we don’t have the funding. We don’t have the funding,” Sublett stated. She said of peer support specialists, “We’re that added layer doing whatever it takes to help that person.”

When she started her work as a peer support specialist, Sublett made a point to get to know all of the resources in the Winona area, visiting with social service agencies, churches, and organizations and getting the details on what they offer. “You have to actually find out what funding is available. Is this a reliable resource? Can I really send people here to get a bus pass? Can I really send people here to get housing? Because the worst thing you can do is send someone to a resource that no longer exists,” she said.

“She has so much information,” Chandler said of Sublett. “Just in general she has been a resource for me anytime I’ve had a question — ‘I have this person who needs this. Do you know anyone who might do this?’ … She just knows all kinds of things that are going on that you or I might not be aware of,” Chandler added.

Being informed and persistent has served Sublett well in her own life. She described being denied a public housing apartment because of a 30-year-old conviction on her record. “I asked if could appeal the decision. [The public housing staff member] said, ‘No,’” Sublett recalled. “Well, I told you I’m a digger. I said, ‘You’re not being forthright with this. I know I can appeal.’” Sublett called the courthouse where the conviction was entered; the case was so old the file did not exist anymore, but it was still on her record. So Sublett decided to try to get the conviction expunged. “I don’t believe I should suffer because of something I did 30 years ago,” she said. It worked, and Sublett got the apartment. Now she wants to help others expunge old convictions.

“If you aren’t willing to stand up and challenge someone, you’ll never get where you need to be,” Sublett stated. But, she added, “What about the people who don’t have the courage — or the know-how — to challenge these people when they say no?”

When Sublett was young, her mother moved their family from Chicago to the nearly all-white Houston, Minn. “I was literally moved to a place where no one looked like me,” Sublett recalled. She said that many of the issues that led to her substance abuse revolved around searching for identity. “I’d run away from Houston to Winona because they had black people at the college,” she said. Later, as a licensed nurse practitioner working in Rochester and the Twin Cities, Sublett said, “I started hanging out and doing things I thought I had missed out on in my childhood.” Eventually, Sublett wound up using heroin, then dealing, getting busted, and going to prison, she stated. “I would just get out and start doing the hustling lifestyle all over again,” Sublett recalled.

One day, Sublett said, “I just had a judge tell me, ‘Kathy, you are so intelligent.’ But I just wasn’t using that intelligence because I was trying to find myself. … He said, ‘I’m going to send you to treatment. I’m going to send you to treatment where you won’t have any distractions. I’m going to promise you something. These prosecutors want to give you 20 years. But I’m going to give you a chance.’” The judge sent her to treatment instead of prison, but the judge promised if she got in trouble again, he would send her away for 30 years, Sublett recalled. “I had to do something different,” she said. “I was either going to overdose or I was going to die in prison … I decided to give my life to Christ and ask that higher power to help figure out what was wrong with me.

“My recovery was really painful in the beginning because I had to really dig up things I had numbed with drugs,” Sublett continued. Things like childhood trauma and sexual assaults she survived. “I’m still in the process of healing, but I just know drugs are not it. Committing crimes is not it,” she stated. “The success of my recovery was being true to me, proving to myself that I could make it without chemicals, that I could make it without the lifestyle, without the hustling. I had to prove it to myself because trying to prove it for anyone else just doesn’t work. You have to do it for yourself.”

The story of how Sublett became a peer support specialist is an unlikely one. Her pastor, Pleasant Valley Church’s Joe McConkey, threw out the idea: “Have you ever thought of volunteering with treatment court?”

No. Not at all. Sublett explained, “My opinion of law enforcement was not high — until I met with people and realized these are real people.”

Nevertheless, Sublett sat in on treatment court hearings just to see what it was all about. A Rochester nonprofit that would later hire Sublett was sending peer support specialists to help with treatment court participants in Winona. One day, Sublett said, one of the specialists who showed up for court was her nephew. They were both flabbergasted. “What are you doing down here?’” Sublett exclaimed. Her nephew was just as incredulous: “What are you doing, Auntie?”

Sublett’s nephew explained what he was doing and that the nonprofit was looking for more peer recovery specialists to work in Winona. Sublett was still unconvinced, but she agreed to meet with one of the leaders of the company and that conversation finally swayed her. “I’ve been told a lot, ‘You’ll never be able to work with anyone in social services because of your background,’” Sublett explained. When the nonprofit leader told Sublett her background was actually valuable, Sublett didn’t believe it: “You’re trying to tell me that with my felony background and my background with addiction I can help people?”

“Being a peer recovery specialist, I think, is just the best thing ever,” Sublett gushed. If someone doesn’t know what it’s like to be desperate for a job, to be hungry, to sleep on a park bench, to be in jail, she said, “It’s going to be a little difficult for you to understand what [people in recovery] are talking about.” For her to be able to use those experiences to help others, Sublett stated, “It meant everything to me to be able to mentor people or be able to offer services to people. I am one of them. It meant everything to me to represent change.” She added, “I would not be sitting across this table from you if I had not had someone believing in me.”

Sublett said that grant funding on which the nonprofit had relied to employ her expired — a common issue in social services funding — but that she is hopeful the organization will find new funding for the position. In the meantime, Sublett is volunteering her time as a treatment court sponsor. “I thought the worst that could happen for this community is for the money to go away and for me to go away. Because then they would think, ‘Oh, it was all about the money,’” she said.

Southeast Minnesota is a small world, and Sublett said she still runs into people who remember the days when she was making the paper for all the wrong reasons. “You have those that say, ‘I remember when …’ My response is always going to be, ‘Look at me now.’ I worked to get here, and I don’t need closed minds or small minds to tell me I don’t deserve what I have now.”

The Winona County Treatment Court is looking for people in recovery to volunteer as sponsors, as well as people to serve as mentors, who do not necessarily have to be in recovery themselves. Interested individuals may contact Winona County Treatment Court Coordinator Carin Hyter at 507-457-6434.


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