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Seen and heard

New wellness nonprofit helps Austin restaurant workers struggling with addiction

Nonprofit helps Austin restaurant workers struggling with addiction

Man alone at bar drinking beer
Heard takes place every Tuesday. Getty Images

When Joel Rivas worked full time in the service industry, managing his addiction was part of his everyday routine. “I’ve been clean for 23 years. In all of the time, the hardest part was when I worked in the industry,” he said. Now he wants to help pull others out of the hole he once dug himself into.

And there certainly is a need. According to a 2015 analysis by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, food and hospitality workers suffer from higher rates of illicit drug use and overall substance use disorders than any other industry.

Rivas eventually left the service industry, and in 2016, after a 14-year career in the medical field, he created Heard, a nonprofit that focuses on the overall wellness of the restaurant industry. The group currently hosts weekly substance abuse support group meetings in San Antonio, and will expand to Austin beginning May 7.

“I knew there weren’t a lot of resources out there that were specific in terms of industry support, and so I wanted to focus on that,” said Rivas. “Working in the restaurant and bar industry is so different. It’s a different dynamic when you’re addressing something like substance abuse.”

Heard launched its meetings a year ago. In that time, it has taken some convincing to get people to feel comfortable enough to face the social stigma of coming to the group; sometimes there’s a dozen people and sometimes there’s only one. Rivas said that despite that stigma, multiple individuals have still reached out for help.

“We’ve helped several individuals get into rehab, detox, and even an outpatient rehab program,” Rivas said.

Even the group's name is a nod to people in the industry. “Of course everyone’s familiar with the word, that’s what you call out when you’ve heard somebody. People in the kitchen yell out ‘heard!’” Rivas said. “At the same time, it’s also something that when I first started talking with individuals about the need in the service industry … people weren’t always heard or listened to, and it’s sort of swept under the rug.”

He said that Austin, with its booming service industry sector, was a natural choice when the group was looking to expand out to other cities. “When talking with people in the industry there — servers, and chefs, and bartenders — there seems to be a lot more buzz for it,” Rivas said. He said that could be a credit to Austin’s well-known love of all things wellness.

Austin meetings will take place every Tuesday from 6-7:30 pm at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin at 4700 Grover Ave. The nonprofit hopes to eventually offer free yoga and other resources to focus on overall health and wellness. Heard is also working to expand to Dallas and Houston.

In the meantime, Rivas and the group are working on spreading the word about the potential meetings and recruiting ambassadors. “We exist, and we’re here to help,” Rivas said.