Non-Profit Member Spotlight: The Phoenix

Posted By: Quinn Gordon CWA Blog,

People climbing at indoor climbing gym with Phoenix Non-Profit

The Phoenix, founded in 2006 and now operating in 48 states, is a national nonprofit created to help those who have been impacted by addiction. With a variety of programming, including a focus on indoor rock climbing, the Phoenix serves to connect individuals who have mutual passions and shared interests within a framework of sobriety and community-building. 

In this nonprofit member spotlight, I sat down with Erin Wackerla, Volunteer Manager, and Paul Carlson, Volunteer, to discuss how they’ve grown through their affiliation with the Phoenix and how climbing can benefit those who choose a life of sobriety. 

Quinn Gordon, Membership Coordinator, CWA 

Thank you for joining me today, Erin! I was hoping we could kick things off by getting a bit more information on the foundation and philosophy of The Phoenix. 

Erin Wackerla, Volunteer Manager, The Phoenix – Austin Chapter 

Absolutely! We were founded almost 20 years ago on the belief that being active and connected to other individuals is the opposite of addiction. The theory became that by creating these activities that are healthy, meaningful, and accessible to people, we could also create a community for sober individuals. 

And the theory has proven true. Just in the past two years in Austin, TX, where I’m based, we’ve touched over 3,000 individuals. Nationally, we’ve interacted with more than 300,000 people on their recovery journey. We support each other’s sobriety and act as a family in a real way. 

Quinn Gordon 

That’s awesome to hear! What does that community building look like on the ground? 

Erin Wackerla 

We have multiple events every day of the week that cover everything. We were founded with indoor rock climbing and CrossFit as a focus, but we’ve expanded since then to a whole variety of activities, sports, and events. All the events start with a quick explanation of our community standards and then we jump into our activities. We serve in both in-patient and outpatient capacities. Through all those programs, though, we try to show people that fun and joy can still be part of your life as a sober individual. You don’t give those things up when you decide to become sober.  

Paul Carson, Volunteer, The Phoenix – Austin Chapter 

Speaking from the volunteer perspective, I think people struggle with the idea of how to socialize without substances or how to integrate sobriety into their social lifestyle. In that sense, I think The Pheonix answer the question of what a sober and active community can look like.  

Quinn Gordon 

How do you see climbing work in tandem with that concept? 

Paul Carson 

I think climbing is a really good activity because initially, it’s pretty intimidating. Because of that, there are huge opportunities for that mental and emotional growth. People benefit from a challenge they can suddenly tackle. The first time you look at something you're like, “No way.” Then, you get on it and play with it, and you start to believe and, maybe, you send it. 

Suddenly, then you come back the next time and it kicks your butt, and then you come back another time and you finally own it. Even in those failures, there is exposure to that in a safe and forgiving environment. It’s valuable practice for real life to show people that they can work through stress and trauma.  

Quinn Gordon 

Erin, I was hoping you could explain your community standards. 

Erin Wackerla 

Of course! The biggest one is that you have to be at least 48 hours sober to participate in a program, which serves to support folks while also not limiting them in case there’s some sort of relapse. 

We want to be a safe and supportive space for our community.

The other big aspect of things is accessibility. We try to keep almost all of our programming completely free, and The Phoenix is volunteer- and donation-based as a means of removing as many barriers to recovery and community as possible. 

Quinn Gordon 

One of the terms I’ve heard in relation to The Phoenix is that it offers restorative social networks for sober individuals. Do you have any insight on the restorative nature of the work you help facilitate? 

Erin Wackerla 

I think it is restorative in so many different ways! When people go sober, they lose their previous communities, sometimes completely. Through our work, I’ve seen folks have their physical, mental, and emotional health restored, as well as their community restored.  

Paul Carson 

I also think when we talk about restorative justice and education, it’s very relationship-based. There are quite a few members who have relapsed. We understand that it happens, and we are always here to accept them.  We can show them that they still have value as a person, regardless of where they are on their recovery journey.  

Erin Wackerla 

There’s something else that comes to mind for me, too. When you attend these events, we all have this common understanding that we’ve all been through something incredibly difficult. We may not talk about it or bring it to the forefront, but we have a shared knowledge that we have a common background. We don’t have to feel ashamed about it and we don’t have to feel alone anymore, so I’ve personally found that quite restorative, too. 

Quinn Gordon 

How can individuals and organizations get involved with the Phoenix? 

Erin Wackerla 

People who want to join as participants or volunteers can hop on our website and find a local chapter. We’ve got a presence in almost 300 counties across 48 states, so it’s likely that we have programming in your area. We also run virtual programming for those that might not be able to attend in-person events for one reason or another. 

As for organizations, we are always grateful to our wonderful community partners who donate space and resources to make our work possible. 

If you visit our website and search for how to partner, you’ll find out your local contact to get the process started. Shout out to Mesa Rim, Austin Bouldering Project, and Crux Climbing for their support of us in Austin!

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About the Author

Quinn GordonQuinn Gordon is the membership coordinator at the CWA. Quinn is an active member of the climbing community and continues to hone his skills inside and outside the gym. When not on the clock, he can be found climbing in the Flatirons, hiking in the Rockies, or reading above the tree line.