Addiction is no joke; Jesse Hubenette would be the first to tell you that. The Alexandria native has spent years battling his drug and alcohol problems while bouncing in and out of treatment. This June marked 17 months of sobriety for Hubenette, and over the last year, he’s started making a difference in not only his life but also others who battle the same problems.
The Alexandria Sober Squad is a group of recovering addicts that meet in and out of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The goal of the group is to provide shoulders for addicts to lean on when times are tough.
The original Sober Squad started in Grand Rapids. Hubenette moved to the Iron Range to seek treatment for his addiction over two years ago.
“It’s kind of a grassroots thing for people in recovery,” Hubenette said. “I was up there for nine months, and I had one of the best summers of my life with those people. It’s about having sober fun in recovery because that’s a hard thing to find when you get out of recovery.”
Hubenette relapsed and moved back to Alexandria after his time in Grand Rapids. When he got clean again, he decided to take the initiative in his hometown and start a new Sober Squad group with his friends.
“They took me by my hand in Grand Rapids, so I thought I needed to start something in Alexandria,” Hubenette said. “People in recovery have a hard time finding new friends and things to do. In my NA group, we started our own Sober Squad here, and it’s been really good for us.”
The Sober Squad is an informal group that finds peace in the company of other addicts. They do things like sober bowling, family dinners and speaking in treatment groups.
Collin Jackson started the Sober Squad in Grand Rapids with four friends after his ninth time in treatment. In 2016, he decided that enough was enough.
“We wanted to be there when there wasn’t anybody there for people,” Jackson said. “One of my friends that helped start it, Bobby Rose, lost his life to leukemia in 2017. Everything we do now is dedicated to him. We wear bracelets and jerseys that all have his name on them. It’s a way to keep his legacy going. Everything we do, we honor Bobby.”
The growth of the Sober Squad wasn’t something Jackson expected. While Hubenette took it to Alexandria, Colin Cash took it to Mille Lacs. Since then, the Sober Squad has a group in various reservations around the Midwest.
The Grand Rapids Sober Squad started a Facebook group that now has over 7,000 members from around the country. They’ve organized sobriety walks for people in recovery and created a community that addicts can look to when they need a hand. The once local group has spread to various states with thousands of people.
“We never looked at it from the big picture,” Jackson said. “We were just five guys trying to do something different in recovery. When we realized we had established ourselves in the sobriety community, we knew it was time to do something more. I had a cousin that relapsed and overdosed that I took personally. I asked the fellas, ‘What are we really doing? What more can we do for outreach?’ That’s when we started having these events every year.”
The Grand Rapids Sober Squad held its first recovery event in 2018 with over 300 attendees. In 2019, over 400 people showed up. Last September, the Sober Squad’s first sobriety walk had 200 marchers travel in solidarity.
Jackson is currently 52 months sober. For him, he’s not only living clean for his health, but for his kids.
“It’s hard for me to put it into words sometimes, but my biggest accomplishment is getting full legal custody of my two middle kids,” Jackson said. “They were on the verge of being lost in the foster system. Watching how far they have come compared to where they were is more of a miracle than myself. My son wouldn’t talk to me because he’d been through so many foster care systems. Now he’s flourishing in school. My daughter was the same story. She was so far behind, and now she’s one of the top kids in her class. That means the world to me.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on in-person meetups for the Sober Squad. The Alexandria group would meet virtually while staying at home to share stories about their lives. Hubenette found companionship while listening to others open up.
“Quarantine is a hard time for us,” Hubenette said. “Sober Squad was huge for me. Every day, people told their stories of strength and hope. I read my daily reflections and called people to stay involved. Now we get to have meetings outside at City Park.”
Hubenette encourages people who are struggling with addiction to reach out on the Sober Squad Facebook pages. He doesn’t know what the future is going to look like, but he hopes that people in need seek the help they’re offering.
“The connections are so strong with our people, and that’s my favorite part,” Hubenette said. “When I was early in recovery, I looked up to the people that had been through it. I wanted to know how they did it. They got it, and I wanted it. It was really inspiring, and I hope that we can do that for more people.”