CONTENT WARNING: Descriptions and mentions of overdose, addiction, and substance abuse.
Sheryl Varien is a vivacious 58-year-old transfer student and Renaissance Scholar at UC Santa Cruz. Those who are Renaissance Scholars are no strangers to hardship. They have dealt with struggles such as violence or neglect in their homes, houselessness, and substance abuse. Varien’s addiction story began at the age of six, when she had her first drink. Blackouts and near-death experiences make up many of her memories in the years following.
A car accident, after her falling off the wagon from two years of sobriety, is what almost took her life. But one thing to be certain about is that Sheryl Varien is alive. She is energetic and optimistic about the future. Today, she is a straight-A student studying to create her own non-profit organization.
As she began recounting the tales of her life halfway down the path from Cowell College to East Field, she took a moment to gaze at the horizon overlooking the Santa Cruz shoreline. She then shifted her focus to the right, where large brown boxes with the words ‘mobile modular’ stand. This is where her UCSC story begins.
One of these boxes is home to The Cove, UCSC’s harm reduction and recovery community. Within the walls of this brown box, students struggling with addiction can access counseling, support meetings, and other health and wellness services in order to create opportunities and provide hope.
The Cove fosters a community-based effort to create a safe space free from the misconceptions often associated with addiction. It’s a community that Ryan Berardi, one of the two student interns in recovery working at The Cove, understands well. Hired by The Cove’s co-founder, Jorge Bru, in the fall of 2020, Berardi spoke of the emotional impact of substance abuse.
“Addiction is a disease, and it’s taken out tons of people. I’ve seen my friends die. I’m sick of seeing people I love die. I just want there to be a societal change,” Berardi said. “I lost my best friend last year, and it’s an experience so many people that I know go through. It’s just scary.”
When Jorge Bru began working at UCSC in 2014, they quickly realized the importance of a more inclusive and supportive space for students struggling with substance abuse. Bru helped set up a secluded space, originally set aside for the Art Department but left unused, to establish a home for the services that would eventually become The Cove.
The small space, just below the Kresge Photo Co-op, needed to be reclaimed by the Art Department in 2016, so the university arranged for The Cove to be housed in a new location. This is the current location of The Cove, housed in a mobile modular between Cowell College and East Field.
According to data by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the national drug-involved overdose death rates had gone up from 70,630 people in 2019 to 91,799 people in 2020, the year of the start of the pandemic. Often, those struggling with substance abuse disorders keep silent due to fear of judgment and stigma. At The Cove, Bru emphasizes the importance of overcoming stereotypes of people who struggle with substance and drug abuse.
“There’s a certain stigma of what an alcoholic or addict looks like — and it’s always the worst image that comes into your mind,” said Bru. “It’s never a high-functioning UCSC student that gets straight A’s.”
The Cove focuses on a harm reduction model that helps manage behaviors resulting in negative consequences. Rather than trying to eradicate harmful practices completely, the model’s approach is to take slow steps to provide safer strategies to limit the detrimental effect of addiction on someone’s life.
“The harm reduction method works, because a lot of people just haven’t come that far yet,” said Varien. “But when they’re ready, they’re ready. You can’t tell somebody to be ready.”
Alongside Bru, Varien has worked to not only promote the harm reduction model but create programs to promote mindfulness and wellness. Each Friday, Varien hosts a drum and talking circle to help come together and ease lingering tension and stress that comes from both substance abuse and recovery.
In addition to connecting students to resources and outlets for expression, The Cove provides fentanyl test strips, along with free Narcan, a medication to counter the effects of opioid overdoses. Drug testing and recovery workshops are also offered at The Cove.
Though The Cove has had ongoing success with student outreach, the trailer itself has faced problems such as rodents and plumbing issues. While these are signs of the long-term wear and tear of a space that is not meant to be permanent, Bru emphasized the importance of the University’s continued support of The Cove.
“I’m just really grateful the university has supported our program and our space for so long now,” said Bru. “They really do care about the cove, and you know, us existing here, supporting the students in this way.”
There have been two previous attempts to gain funds to secure a permanent space for The Cove, Measures 72 and 75, at Kresge College as a part of the college’s renewal project through a proposed campus fee measure. Both of them received more than 50 percent approval but not the 67 percent supermajority needed, stalling The Cove’s quest for a permanent space.
Despite the setbacks, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief of Staff Lucy Rojas notes that plans for a long-term, permanent space are currently in the works.
“The Division [of Student Affairs] believes that we have identified a long term solution for The Cove that does not require taking Measure 75 to voters,” Rojas stated. “We are working in collaboration with several campus partners toward a renovation of the Bay Tree Bookstore building that will bring more student services to the Quarry Plaza area.”
Looking to the future, Bru emphasized the importance of services like The Cove existing beyond a university environment, arguing that these services’ accessibility would reflect a deeper act of social justice.
“I’m very hopeful that this is just the beginning of a large movement for the whole world,” said Bru.
As The Cove celebrates its seventh anniversary on Feb. 22, the community it has created has come together and provided resources to the campus community despite a non-permanent location. Sheryl emphasized her sense of belonging in the community, and acknowledged that her struggle does not define her life anymore.
As the conversation dwindled down, Sheryl took a moment to look across the horizon above East Field. She smiled, “I tell everybody I’m in heaven now.”
This article has been amended as of Feb. 17 in order to correct a factual error.