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'My heart is so full': Connections Counseling Founder Shelly Dutch retires

Dutch traces her own recovery journey back to 1983.

As Shelly Dutch invested in her own recovery, she made it her life’s work to help others do the same, founding Connections Counseling, a division of Rosecrance, two decades ago.

She stepped down as director in 2022 and retired officially in the fall, but her legacy lives on in the center’s solid foundation and through the thousands of people she and her team have helped through the years.

Dutch traces her own recovery journey back to 1983 when she entered inpatient treatment for substance use. She began working in the treatment field more than 30 years ago in Kentucky, which is where she determined she wanted to work with young people with drug and alcohol issues.

When she returned to Madison in the early 1990s, she felt lonely not having connection to a recovery network here. She started a program called Teens in Control in 1996 and then Connections Counseling in 2003.

Connections grew quickly—from two staff members back then to over 30 today and from a small, two-room office on John Nolan Drive to the current (fourth and biggest) location at 5005 University Avenue.

“The beautiful part was that there was such a passion right away,” Dutch recalled. “The way we grew was through community, caring, and making our treatment really personal.”

Mentorship and broadening her mission

Connections Counseling became known for its mentor program, which pairs individuals with demonstrated progress and stability in their recovery with other clients in early recovery. Mentors support and contribute to various therapy groups, as well as organize and participate in frequent sober activities outside of Connections. This might be a stepping stone to developing a relationship with an AA/NA sponsor—it’s not instead of a sponsor.

The mentor program has provided a peer support model for programs across the country.

“One of the greatest gifts for me has been the mentor program,” Dutch said. “I started working with mentors early on, and they are a critical piece to helping others. They are people who understand what others are going through, share their experiences of strength and hope, and really help people engage and invest in their recovery.”

Dutch also expanded Connections’ work with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and developed a strong network with judges and attorneys to help people struggling with substance use find alternatives to jail and help impaired professionals through intensive outpatient programs (IOP) and individualized treatment plans.

Connections also provides specialized outpatient groups to address community needs, including LGBTQ+ identity, women in recovery, anxiety and recovery, and groups with specific therapy focus like family therapy.

In 2006, Dutch helped start Horizon High School, a sober recovery school that’s one of 35 sober high schools across the country and the only one in Wisconsin. The same year, she also helped found the Recovery Foundation, which provides community education, sponsors the mentor program, and provides scholarships to people with limited access to treatment.

The Rosecrance connection

Connections Counseling merged with Rosecrance fully in 2020, but the relationship between the two organizations started many years earlier.

Dutch and the Connections team referred patients to Rosecrance, and Connections and Rosecrance collaborated to open the TMS Center of Madison in 2013. The center provides transcranial magnetic stimulation for treatment-resistant depression.

Still enthusiastic about recovery, Dutch fully transitioned her caseload in the fall and is looking forward to seeing what it’s like to “not be really busy.”

The community of professionals, colleagues, friends, and family celebrated Dutch’s retirement with a fundraiser for the Recovery Foundation in October. It was a night to remember with many personal tributes and heartfelt shares.

“My heart is so full,” she said. “I must have written 200 thank-you notes already. The cool thing is I can reflect on each person and relationship I’ve had over the years. I’m hearing things like ‘You’ve touched my child, my family, my cousin, my sister, my aunt, my uncle.’

“It’s been nothing short of magical and miraculous to experience this beautiful career and have this kind of closure with the staff and community. I am deeply touched by the good fortune I’ve had to do work that’s been so deeply fulfilling.”

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