A police officer writes in a notebook while speaking with a woman in sunglasses. A man with his back to the camera in a baseball hat is also part of the conversation.
At Project Recover, Joy Bogese (center) partners directly with the Chesterfield Police Department, assisting community members struggling with addiction. (Rolynn Wilson, for WRIC ABC8 News)

VCU alum Joy Bogese's transformation from addiction to advocacy

Bogese, who began her recovery from opioid addiction while in jail, now helps others facing similar struggles in her work at Project Recover.

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Joy Bogese's path to redemption was not traced in the lecture halls of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned a master’s degree in criminal justice. It wasn’t charted within the comfort of her middle-class upbringing, within the security of a flourishing career, or the comfortable home she once shared with her husband and three lovely daughters. Rather, it emerged from an arduous battle waged in a location no one would desire – a jail cell. This is where Bogese's struggle against drug addiction took a transformative turn toward recovery.

Beneath the outward appearance of success and an idyllic family life, Bogese wrestled with childhood trauma and a deeply ingrained sense of unworthiness. Her internal conflict manifested itself into substance abuse, a slow and stealthy incursion that began with teenage alcohol experimentation, took hold and gradually worsened.

As she matured into adulthood, Bogese encountered the relentless pain of endometriosis — a medical challenge that presented a powerful temptation: prescription drugs. At first, her usage was essential for managing her condition, but over time, it spiraled out of control. By her 20s, she was ensnared by a full-blown opioid addiction, even resorting to the use of illicit substances at her white-collar job.

Her tipping point arrived in 2015, when following several arrest warrants and an overdose, she was sentenced to a five-year term in jail, marking the darkest period of her life. But, in that seemingly desolate place, Bogese found a pivot toward transformation. The confines of her cell became a mirror for introspection, an opportunity to scrutinize her past and her decisions. And, as she recalled, “in a strange twist of fate, my incarceration became my liberation.”

Within the Helping Addicts Recover Progressively (HARP) program at Chesterfield County Jail, Bogese began to break free from the shackles of her addiction. Conceived by Sheriff Karl Leonard, a Wilder alum, HARP equipped Bogese with the means to confront her past and forge strategies to navigate it. In doing so, she untangled the web of addiction that had held her captive for years.

Upon her release, Bogese transformed her life, employing her personal experience and academic grounding in criminal justice to assist others battling substance abuse. Today, as a peer recovery specialist at Project Recover, she is on the front lines in the fight against addiction, turning despair into hope.

At Project Recover, Bogese partners directly with the Chesterfield Police Department, assisting community members struggling with addiction. She helps individuals access resources for detox or residential treatment. For those not yet ready, she shares her story, extending a hand of empathy and hope. She also conducts training and works to reduce stigma within the police department, leveraging her past as a catalyst for change.

Bogese’s daily work is both challenging and rewarding. Her unusual collaboration with law enforcement ensures individuals entangled in substance abuse are met with empathy and understanding. She continues to enlighten the Chesterfield County Police Department about the complexities of addiction, advocating for compassionate tactics and pushing for systemic change.

As a result, Bogese has played a key role in reshaping the department's perception of addiction. Her work aims to humanize those battling substance abuse, reminding law enforcement that potential for recovery and transformation exists even in the most severe cases. Her efforts not only benefit those she directly helps but also ripple outwards, influencing the broader narrative around substance abuse.

Bogese’s master's degree in criminal justice from the Wilder School has also proven invaluable in her role at Project Recover. She says it has granted her a comprehensive understanding of the justice system and its role in addressing substance abuse. Combined with her personal experiences, this academic foundation allows her to approach her work with a blend of theoretical knowledge and practical insight.

“I am living proof that change is possible,” Bogese said. “Every interaction I have, whether with individuals battling addiction or law enforcement officers, I strive to convey this. It's more than just a job to me – it's my life's mission.”

Bogese's journey from incarceration to advocacy is not just a tale of personal redemption. It encapsulates a broader narrative of change, the power of empathy, and the potential for systemic reform. Her story has influenced law enforcement strategies, altered societal perceptions and most importantly, given hope to those who need it most.

“The beauty of life is in transforming negatives into positives,” Bogese said. “Every day, I utilize my past to help construct a better future for someone else. That, for me, is the true essence of redemption.”

Once held captive by her past, Bogese now harnesses it to liberate others from theirs. In this journey, she has found her purpose: to illuminate the path to recovery for others, and in doing so, enlighten her own way forward.