A Safe Place of Their Own

Tina Levene has made a name for herself as a clean comedienne, five-time author and motivational public speaker. She is polished, confident, energetic, passionate and dynamic—and, at 45, she is 22 years into her recovery journey. “It’ll be 23 years in January 2021, which I just love because I started recovery at age 23!”

“I was addicted to drugs as an adolescent,” she shares. Born in Ohio, she started smoking at age nine, drinking by 14, and was a daily user of other drugs from 18 to 23. “I was in college—failing nine classes—and attending 12-step recovery meetings for relatives of alcoholics when I realized I was an alcoholic.”

As a 20-something female, Levene was often the only young person and female in her Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups. She handled it with humor: “Some of the old-timers used to say they’d spilled more alcohol in their life than I could have drunk by then,” she recalls, “But I just hit back with ‘I’m such a perfectionist, I got into the program at 23!’”

Behind her humor was a deeply felt, personal truth: There was a huge need for recovery groups and meetings for young people. “And so I started young people’s AA meetings. I went into adolescent drug treatment programs and sober clubhouses. Sometimes I’d be sitting at a scheduled meeting all alone. Sometimes we had two or three. Sometimes the room was full. I kept at it. ‘I have to be here for these kids!’ And, today, programs I established are still going in Canton and Akron, Ohio.”

Levene dedicated herself to others, particularly youths. A bachelor’s degree led to social work, then she transitioned into drug prevention and education and on into juvenile justice. She’s spent 22 years in organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the Department of Health, the Hillsborough County Department of Children’s Services, and the Pace Center for Girls, moving from Ohio to Florida in the meantime.

“I have a passion for young people. I know and understand the circumstances they’re going through. I bring personal experience along with my passion. They need to be around others–who are similar to themselves—on their recovery journey. They need a safe place, where their voices are heard and where they can find a support system.”

In researching services for young people in recovery here in Florida, Levene stumbled on the recovery high school concept, which has been around since the 1970s. There are 44 across the U.S., including a five-year-old school in Jacksonville, FL.

She reached out to the founder, Dan, who has become a mentor. “And I started looking for someone to run a recovery high school here in Tampa Bay–a very therapeutic and healing centered space for young people.”

Little did she know, she was the one.

“I was looking for someone else,” she says, “thinking, ‘I’m not qualified to run a school, I barely passed high school and college.’”

She spent a few years looking before she finally realized the truth of it. “God calls you and will equip you,” she says. “He’s equipping me with people to do what I can’t do. Knowing I have the expertise and experience in addiction and recovery, but there are other people to bring in other resources and expertise–I don’t have to know it all.” That’s incredibly freeing, she says. She launched a task force in January of 2020 and quit her full-time job in August to focus on the school.   

“It’s been a whirlwind since January,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I feel like I’ve had rollerblades on and am skating along while God keeps providing resources and people. I get phone calls constantly about opening this safe place for young people: ‘I want to help. How can I help?’”

At one point, she told her husband, “’If I’m here in the living room with 10 young people, don’t mind us.’ I’ll do what I have to do to get this safe space for young people!” But these days Levene and her board of directors are zeroing in on the location of the first Florida Recovery Schools of Tampa Bay, Victory High School, in Pasco County.

It will be a nonprofit, private, tuition-free school open to students from across Tampa Bay. “Until we get more schools. Our vision over 10 years is to open in Pasco, then Hillsborough or Pinellas, then Manatee—four schools in total.”

Victory High will have 50 students, ages 14 to 19, to allow for one-on-one, individualized recovery plans for each and the attention they’ll need, mental health services and wraparound recovery support. “We’ll have licensed mental health counselors, licensed social workers to help families with resources, a food pantry and garden, three meals a day for students, family dinners each month, and recovery coaches, peer recovery specialists, plus the administrators and teachers.”

Providing a place of their own for youths in recovery is exhilarating—and exhausting. “As a woman in recovery,” Levene says, “I have to keep myself apprised of what’s going on in here (heart) and up here (head). ‘Check yourself before you wreck yourself,’” she laughs again.

“I keep working my recovery program because I can’t pour into other people—spiritually, emotionally, physically—until I take care of myself.” She still attends 12-step meetings and therapy, and she and her husband of 17-years are in marriage counseling—“Still,” she laughs, “because we want to make it work, and so we have to keep ourselves well.” Self-care and wellness management are vital aspects of Levene’s recovery and include her faith and constant communication with her power, daily readings and daily exercise. “I’m pouring positive things into myself and my spirit so I can pour into other people.”

If there’s anything Levene wants everyone and anyone—in recovery, in addiction, in health—to know, it’s that “There is hope. No matter your circumstances. Circumstances can change–tomorrow, next week or even 10 years. “People are going through so many difficulties today in the world. I want to tell them to hold on to that tiny bit of hope! Reach out to me if you need it. And practice an attitude of gratitude of every day: Be grateful you woke up and have breath, because that means there is hope.”  

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