UK professor Alex Elswick overcame opioid addiction to work with others in recovery and start a community organization to aid them

By Grace Sowards
University of Kentucky

Alex Elswick grew up with everything he needed. With two great parents, a roof over his head and good grades in school, he was a young person who wouldn’t lead people to believe drug addiction would be in his future.

“I come from a really privileged background,” said Elswick. “My dad is a doctor, I grew up in the suburbs and kind of had every advantage. That mattered; it mattered in terms of my addiction and my recovery.”

Today, Elswick is an assistant extension professor in the University of Kentucky‘s School of Human Environmental Sciences. He has master’s and doctoral degrees from the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, which includes the school. His work focuses on substance-use prevention and recovery across the state. He is a founding member of Lexington’s Voices of Hope, a substance-use disorder community center focused on research-based recovery treatment.

Elswick’s passion for recovery education did not initially blossom from research. For many, addiction can start before an individual ever touches a substance. At age 18, he underwent wisdom-tooth surgery and was prescribed opioid painkillers. Risk factors, such as family history or mental illness, can seriously increase one’s likelihood for addiction. Elswick faced both.

“I took it exactly as it was prescribed by my provider, but with all those risk factors, I got addicted,” Elswick said. “Two years later, I woke up and I had a $200-a-day opioid addiction.”

Elswick describes his addiction in the years following his surgery as ‘nothing special.’ He experienced homelessness, unemployment and isolation. Finally, after checking into a treatment shelter in Dayton, Ohio, Elswick was able to get and stay sober for six months.

While his sobriety was an exciting milestone, Elswick confronted barriers and questions that many people face when leaving addiction treatment. Where could he go for housing? How would he find employment? This is where his connections to the UK community made him luckier than most.

“I told everybody I was going to do tobacco research, but really I was just digging holes,” Elswick chuckled. “It was such a great job for me early in my recovery. I got to be outside, working with my hands.”

For Elswick there was a sense of healing in this work. Through it, he discovered his own healing wasn’t the whole story; he wanted to work in drug and alcohol counseling. One afternoon, colleague Kenny Hunter asked him if he had put any thought into his future. Elswick shared his new dream of working in recovery, and it opened a door he didn’t even know was there.

Hunter’s wife is Jennifer Hunter, an extension professor and director of the School of Human Environmental Sciences. She and Elswick were introduced, and it wasn’t long before he returned to the classroom.

With the support of Hunter and other UK faculty, Elswick used his own experience with addiction to address needs he noticed in his community.

“We looked at all of the help I had in my recovery,” Elswick said. “With my employment, education, mental and physical health—you could go down the list of everything I had access to that put me in a better position to recover. But 99% of folks who have addictions in our community don’t have access to most of those resources.”

Elswick knew they needed to create a one-stop-shop for recovery. This model already exists in recovery community organizations. After researching as much as they could on the topic, Elswick and his colleagues traveled to see some RCOs making real change in their communities.

Thus was Voices of Hope born. An RCO in the heart of Lexington working to prove to those struggling that change can be made at any stage. The Voices team upholds the unique approach of supporting other pathways of recovery besides complete sobriety, or abstinence. Voices of Hope supports individuals who want to practice abstinence and provides programming from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous for those interested. However, the team of coaches at Voices encourage any and all steps toward recovery, no matter the pace.

“If you think about any other kind of behavior change, people typically don’t change all at once,” said Elswick. “If I want to lose weight, it’s usually a process. Even if I have 50 pounds to lose, if I go to my doctor and say I’m only willing to lose 10, he or she will not kick me out of their office. It’s an improvement in your health, and at Voices, we recognize that by meeting you where you are.”

Voices of Hope began in 2014 as a group that provided access to naloxone (brand name Narcan), the drug that reverses drug overdoses, when it was very stigmatized and difficult to find. Now, they are a fully operational RCO with two Lexington locations and thousands served.

It provides services to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, has a partnership with the state Department of Corrections to place recovery coaches in prisons, and has created mobile recovery units to provide resources in hard-to-reach areas of Louisville and Lexington. Those are just a few of the major projects Voices has achieved in the last few years.

Today, Elswick continues to be motivated by the same community that lifted him out of his substance use disorder and into his life of service. This includes his family and those at UK who encouraged him to work and do research in the substance use disorder space.

“It’s a cliché, I suppose, to say I wouldn’t be here without them, but I think it’s literally true,” said Elswick. “There’s no single job on the planet better suited for me than exactly the job that I have, and I believe strongly that if it weren’t for Kenny and Dr. Hunter advocating for me, I would not be where I am now.”

In his college, Elswick teaches the course Addiction is a Chronic Disease and has taught classes on Substance Use, Family and Society, Family Resource Management. Working with students and inspiring change is something he’s immensely grateful for.

“The University of Kentucky, from the beginning, supported me and supported recovery,” Elswick said. “I never experienced stigma and I never experienced shame from the university. I always heard university leadership saying ‘this is an issue that we want to get behind.’”

For more information on Voices of Hope, visit

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