CU Denver alumnus champions addiction recovery alongside Barack Obama

Communications graduate works to grow awareness and resources for individuals in recovery

August 17, 2016

It was a defining moment for CU Denver alumnus Justin Luke Riley as he sat beside President Barack Obama on a panel at the 2016 National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. It is a moment he is grateful for after successfully overcoming his own battle with addiction. Today, Riley is CEO and founder of Young People in Recovery (YPR), an organization dedicated to creating supportive communities and resources for individuals in recovery. He has made it his personal mission to redefine the way addiction and recovery are perceived.

Justin Luke Riley (left) served on a panel alongside President Barack Obama and CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta at the 2016 National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.
Justin Luke Riley (left) served on a panel alongside President Barack Obama and CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta at the 2016 National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.

Hearing Obama address addiction and mental health recovery as a national health crisis, rather than a personal or moral failing, was a major step for Riley and other leaders in the addiction recovery movement.

“I was pleasantly surprised with the president’s knowledge and message on addiction and recovery,” Riley said. “It is a win for any social movement to have representatives from the medical, political and financial communities associate themselves with such a marginalized community.”

The meeting also carried a personal significance for Riley, who has been in long-term recovery since 2007.

“Meeting with the president was emotional,” Riley said. “To know I worked hard and had that opportunity that I could share with my family was humbling. I am grateful for that.”

Justin Luke Riley and family with Barack Obama
Justin Luke Riley (left) and his family met President Barack Obama at the 2016 National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.

Young People in Recovery

Riley founded YPR in 2014. The organization offers a host of programs and leadership opportunities that not only connect people in recovery with support and resources, but also show people in recovery how they can share their successes with others in need.

“We are not just serving people, we are empowering them,” said Riley. “They can use the skills and resilience they built to support their communities.”

YPR works to make sure its participants are not just consuming resources, but also delivering their services to those in need. The organization already has more than 100 chapters across the nation, which are primarily run by volunteers and deliver programming for recovery as well as prevention.

Another defining characteristic of YPR is that it does not focus on a single path to recovery as many other programs do, instead emphasizing that there are many methods to reaching a healthier lifestyle.

“YPR accepts many pathways,” said Riley. “For some people that means figuring out how to drink responsibly. For others that means an abstinence-based recovery lifestyle. My path is abstinence-based and filled with faith, family and a little bit of fun. YPR welcomes everyone. We believe the strength is in the community, not just in the individual in recovery or seeking to enter recovery.”

Changing perceptions

As YPR continues to grow and evolve, Riley is hoping to see an increased focus on changing the perceptions surrounding addiction and the recovery lifestyle.

“At YPR, we believe in people who much of society has given up on because of stigma, biases or discrimination associated with individuals in long-term recovery,” Riley said.

Given the wide misperception and confusion surrounding addiction and recovery, Riley hopes to place a greater emphasis on sharing information across communities and advocating for increased resources for recovery programs.

“I’m glad the president has been innovative and shown great progress, but we have to follow that through, especially when it comes to dollars,” Riley said.

As of 2016, overdoses from heroin, prescription drugs and opioid pain relievers have overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. Legislation aimed at mitigating the impact of addiction-related issues often comes unfunded, such as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which passed on July 22, 2016.

“We have a responsibility to provide the opportunity for people to get well,” Riley said. “We know they can. But we need to commit to giving them access to the services that will get them there.”

‘Your university will believe in you’

As he leads YPR, Riley continues to draw from lessons he learned at CU Denver. While at the university, Riley decided to major in communications after meeting Department of Communication faculty Larry Erbert and Stephen Hartnett. Both of the professors instilled in him the importance of a strong base in communications and how it was an essential skill for any profession.

Justin Luke Riley at Commencement
Justin Luke Riley poses with his wife, Rachel, at commencement. Riley is currently a student in the MBA Program at CU Denver.

“Hands down, except for my faith and hard work, the only reason I have been able to get where I am is because of the communication skills I learned at CU Denver,” Riley said. “I draw on those skills every day.”

Riley received his bachelor’s in communication, mediation and public relations from CU Denver in 2013. He is currently enrolled in the Executive MBA Program. Reflecting on his own journey, Riley emphasized that CU Denver students need to believe in themselves to be able to achieve success.

“I think the greatest disservice a person can do is not believe in yourself,” Riley. “Your university will believe in you, others will believe in you, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t as well. Don’t forget to believe in yourself.”