Atlantic City native Justin Volpe dabbled in drugs and alcohol during his time at Buena Regional High School when he lived in Weymouth Township.
When Volpe left South Jersey at age 18 to live with his brother in Miami, his addiction problems escalated. He spent time in the Miami-Dade County Jail, but he was then accepted into Miami-Dade’s Jail Diversion Program.
“I was in a program for six to seven months. I had relapses,” Volpe said late last month. “A day before my 24th birthday, they closed out my court cases.”
When he started his life of sobriety, he didn’t know what he would do for a living, but he has found it has been a humbling experience to help people overcome their addictions.
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“It helps my recovery immensely to help other people go through the process,” said Volpe, who also suffers from mental illness, though he declined to specify which mental illness.
Now, he has about 20 years of experience dealing with the difficult-to-navigate treatment system. He has been a certified recovery peer support specialist with the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project since 2008.
Volpe’s work is the focus of a PBS documentary, “The Definition of Insanity,” by filmmakers Gabriel London and Charles Sadoff, which aired earlier this year. “The Definition of Insanity” focuses on officials in Miami-Dade County who have worked to decriminalize mental health issues.
He also is featured in the first of a new five-part series of digital-first, short docu-films examining mental illness and the criminal justice system, also made by London and Sadoff.
Since 2011, Volpe has served as a national consultant and has traveled the country sharing his message of hope and inspiration.
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He has trained more than 2,500 crisis intervention team officers in Miami-Dade County since 2008 and assisted in getting more than 1,000 people out of jail.
London considers Volpe a friend since filming him in 2018 and last year. London said Volpe is one of the most incredible people he has ever met.
“What sets Justin apart is what he brings to life and work — both his honesty about his experiences and his will to survive, his unstoppable sense of humor and his generosity with those going through what he once went through in his day-to-day work,” London said.
Volpe shows that recovery is not only possible, but that life on the other side can be rewarding and fun, full of possibilities, rather than limitations, London said.
The short docu-films are being released by the One Mind All Media division of the national mental health and brain research nonprofit One Mind.
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“I agreed to be filmed originally to spread awareness,” Volpe said.
The documentary and the short film were the first time Volpe was ever filmed for a project that would be shown to the general public.
“It felt fine for me,” Volpe said. “All my clients’ paranoia level went up. It caused distrust with the program. That was a challenge.”
There are times when people are involved with the filming of a documentary but are not happy with the result because of editing and what is left out or included.
Volpe has no complaints about his short film.
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“I like it. It was good. It depicted a good day in the community,” Volpe said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Volpe said his activities as a peer counselor for the Jail Diversion Program would include anything from obtaining food and clothes to taking people to Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Volpe is one of more than 20 team members, but he works with as many as 30 people. He does not see all of them weekly.
“I’m 36 years old,” said Volpe, who added he is old enough to be a father to some of his clients. “It’s a great job. It’s great to give back.”