Counselor keeps finding ways to help treat addiction

Rick Atwater has worked tirelessly to help people with their addiction for more than 25 years. Atwater recently founded Sidekicks Mentoring, which provides no cost mentoring to youth ages 14-18.
Rick Atwater has worked tirelessly to help people with their addiction for more than 25 years. Atwater recently founded Sidekicks Mentoring, which provides no cost mentoring to youth ages 14-18.

If the winter holds up much longer, Rick Atwater might just dive into something new. Again.

The licensed counselor deals with the cold by creating. A couple years ago, late in the winter, Atwater decided to put together a radio show about addiction. It was mid-winter almost 30 years prior that he first pitched the Northwest Herald his weekly addiction column. Winter had just passed when he and another guy started Sidekicks, a mentoring program geared toward troubled teens.

“Late in the winter is always the time when something creative happens with me,” Atwater said. “Maybe it’s cabin fever.”

Regardless the reason, the sum of Atwater’s endeavors has equaled a busy but fulfilling life, he said, centered on a passion for helping people recover from addiction.

Atwater was classically educated as a counselor, and exited his masters program to a job at a youth services bureau in the 1970s.

Dealing with addiction, specifically, wasn’t on his radar – until it was. He declines to say exactly how his life was affected by addiction, but concedes that his interest in helping others with their issues stems to some degree from personal experience.

“Let’s just say I had a life change in 1982 – on March 15 of 1982, to be exact,” he said. “And that changed my perspective on what I wanted to do professionally.”

His career took off not long after. He started writing the column in 1984 and, a year later, founded Northwest Community Counseling with his wife, Moe Ross. Both are still going. His counseling business has grown to encompass three offices – Crystal Lake, Woodstock and West Dundee.

More recently, he decided to start a Sunday night radio show, which can be heard online at recoveryinternetradio.com.

His guests vary in their connection to addiction. Last summer, he brought on a father who lost his daughter to a heroin overdose. He’s also hosted the recovering, talked with advocates and debated issues such as marijuana use.

“When I interview people for the show, I’m interested,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone else is interested, but I am. Maybe my enthusiasm is infectious and people latch onto that. That’s great. I don’t think about that personally.”

Sidekicks came simply from an identified need in the county. Atwater was at a meeting of the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition when someone mentioned – again – that the community needed a way to engage troubled young people. Atwater and another guy peered across the room at each other and knew in that moment, Atwater said, that they were going to get something started.

They did. Meetings with juvenile judges and others engaged in the system later led to the program’s mentor-mentee configuration.

“I’ve seen him create this organization with all of his own funds,” said Teri Lindahl, whom Atwater targeted for help because of her background in youth social services. “He yanked me into it. I was sort of dragging my feet.”

Still, Sidekicks – which is geared toward but not necessarily reserved for teens struggling through substance abuse – has been slow to pick up in its first year. Mentors are currently paired with four young people, all of whom have come through court referrals.

“I always tell people, the ones that Big Brothers Big Sisters would choose not to work with because of their troubles, we would work with,” Atwater said. “The boys and girls that got coal in their stockings.”

Atwater has no qualms with taking on the most extreme cases – or issues, for that matter. On a long lists of interests that have captured his attention, heroin awareness is at the top.

“That’s my thing,” he said. “There’s a lot of drug issues in the county and surrounding counties that are troublesome. But the heroin problem, people die regularly from that.”

Atwater started the Heroin Awareness Foundation, and serves on the county’s Heroin Education/Enforcement Action Task Force, or HEAT.

“You can light it up like fireworks for maybe six or eight weeks, and then all of a sudden it goes dead air again. It just goes silent,” he said. “It’s so easily forgotten because it’s something we don’t want to look at. So I’m always chattering, making noise.”

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