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Virginia Tech sober tailgate puts recovery on display

virginia tech sober tailgate
The “No Rivals in Recovery” tailgate was the first sober tailgate hosted by the Virginia Tech Recovery Community. Photo by Travis Williams for Virginia Tech.

Just prior to the first Virginia Tech football game of the season, another first was taking place in the field across from Cassell Coliseum.

“It’s my first sober tailgate,” said Damian Morenings, a junior studying neuroscience. “It’s also really my first time interacting with people sober – I kind of shut myself out [from others] getting sober – This is getting me used to human contact again.”

Morenings was one of dozens of people to attend the Virginia Tech Recovery Community’s “No Rivals in Recovery” Sober Tailgate prior to the game against the University of North Carolina on Sept. 3. Partnering with the Carolina Recovery Community and the Colorado-based nonprofit, Sober AF Entertainment (SAFE), many of the traditional tailgate staples were present – lawn games, tons of food, and even a cute dog – but absent was anyone offering alcoholic beverages.

“This changes the culture around tailgating by creating a sober space students can see themselves having fun at,” said Joshua Redding, an assistant director with Hokie Wellness who advises the Virginia Tech Recovery Community. “I think a lot of students struggle because they don’t often know where to go or are able to see themselves being sober. We see substance misuse all the time, we don’t often see recovery, but seeing recovery often is what makes it possible for people.”

The tailgate is one of several ongoing initiatives of the Virginia Tech Recovery Community to create engagement opportunities and spaces for students seeking substance-free lifestyles.

“Stepping away, and staying away, from a relationship with a substance can be a really scary thing, even when you realize that relationship is terrible for you,” Redding said. “It can feel incredibly isolating, especially in the typical college environment. So, creating safe places is critical to ensuring these students know they are welcomed and supported no matter what they are working through.”

The efforts of the Virginia Tech Recovery Community were among many programs related to substance use highlighted in the Spring 2021 edition of Virginia Tech Magazine. They are also consistent with Virginia Tech Student Affairs’ “This Year, Best Year,” campaign, which encourages students to set goals and make decisions that will help them have the best year possible.

Redding said the tailgate had been in the works for more than a year and was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A key to making it happen was connecting with Duke Rumley, founder of SAFE, which — among other programming — helps facilitate sober tailgates at universities across the country.

“I’m super impressed with what they’re doing [at Virginia Tech],” Rumley said. “Most college recovery programs have been decimated through COVID, so this is totally amazing.”

In keeping with the event’s name, the event also had representatives from the recovery group at UNC, Carolina Recovery Community.

Hayden Graham, a UNC senior, said the event wasn’t just his first sober tailgate, but his first college football game.

“I was able to be around people in recovery doing something I’d never done before, in a way that I could connect with them without the fear of being surrounded by drugs and alcohol,” Graham said. “It was a weight lifted off my shoulder to be able to enjoy the day and be present with a community I care so much about.”

Having opportunities to develop a sense of connection in safe environments is helping students such as Graham and Morenings live out their recovery without feeling like they’re missing out on life.

“I used to be one of the big people doing it [substance misuse] and everyone liked me, but now that I’m not doing it anymore, they don’t really talk to me,” Morenings said. “So, having the recovery community has really helped get me out of my shell and everyone here just builds each other up. It’s really nice.”

Story by Travis Williams