To tell the story of Julie Funkhouser is to tell a story of resilience in times of great pain, of a life where her biggest challenges and lowest moments were the catalysts for her biggest successes. It is to tell a story about meeting both her husband and her best friend during the second most difficult time in her life, and how that time, and those two people, were the catalysts for a life focused on helping the most vulnerable.
The daughter of RRR Automotive chairman Richard Patterson, who is also a former WANADA chairman, Julie moved from Northern Virginia in 2008 and checked into an inpatient recovery center in Winchester. In 2011, while in recovery, she met Danny Funkhouser, who would become her husband, with whom she had two children. And she also met Meredith Speir when she arrived in Winchester, who would become her best friend, her business partner, and her most trusted confidant.
After leaving rehab, Julie attended Shenandoah University in Winchester, earning a degree in psychology. She got a job working at local mental health clinic, and she and Danny, who himself got clean and remained so for six years, moved into a house and had two children.
One day in early 2018, Meredith, who was volunteering at a local treatment facility, called Julie in search of a bed for a loved one who needed help for substance abuse. The two quickly realized there was a need in northwest Virginia for long-term care that bridges the gap between the typical four-week rehab experience and a return to their homes.
During the spring and summer that year, Meredith and Julie worked hard to start whatwould become The Recovery Connection. They developed a business plan, networked with health advocates who could help them navigate the field and develop a program, and secured a location for their facility in Winchester. Together, they celebrated a combined 23 years of recovery, and the fact that their idea for a transitional recovery facility had turned into reality.
The Recovery Connection opened and began accepting residents on September 1, 2018. Ten days later, the Winchester police arrived at the Recovery Connection with news that would change Julie’s life forever. Danny had passed away suddenly, alone, in a hotel room in Martinsburg, W. Va, as a result of addiction and co-occurring mental illness.
The night before Danny passed away, he went to an emergency room in northern Virginia, looking for help that he tragically didn’t get.
“He was in psychosis. He went to the hospital, and he told them he had suicidal thoughts,” Julie recounted. “Because he was there voluntarily, he waited forever and I believe he grew agitated. I’m sure he felt unsupported. He left.”
Just two weeks into running a new recovery center, Julie was now faced with raising two small children by herself as well. She said the Recovery Connection would have failed without the incredible work that Meredith, who Julie called her “hero,” did during the near aftermath of Danny’s passing.
“Meredith held me down for two weeks, when I just couldn’t work, couldn’t do anything,” Julie said. “I mean really, the first six months were so, so tough. Meredith got me through a lot of darkness and a lot of tough times.”
She said her parents were in Winchester non-stop for weeks after Danny passed away, and also mentioned the interesting additional impact of going through recovery. The fact that she was in recovery so long, and struggled for so long, meant that she also had an enormous support group around her who could acutely empathize with what she was going through.
“I had so many people who were just…there,” Julie said. “I had this business, I had two small kids with no father, all of this stuff. And I got so much support from my family and my support network; for one thing, I had someone prepare and bring us dinner every night from the day it happened until after Halloween. At any given moment, I had constant voicemails and texts, with support. I couldn’t have gotten through this otherwise.”
As the months passed, the pain didn’t fade, but it did redouble Julie’s commitment to doing whatever she could to honor Danny’s kindness, his generous spirit, and also his struggles. As she replayed the sequence of events that led to Danny’s relapse, that fruitless hospital trip, and ultimately his passing, she once again found a huge gap in the state treatment system that was going unaddressed.
“There were so many things leading up to his passing that, in retrospect, exposed the flaws in the system,” Julie said. “Once the raw shock of it all kind of fizzled and I was able to really look back and analyze what happened, it was like this feeling in my heart that told me I was meant to do something more.”
And the fight for Danny’s Bill was born.
Early in 2019, Julie reached out to local members of the Virginia General Assembly, pitching legislation she had begun drafting that would create a statewide standard for how hospitals should treat people who show up at their facilities with behavioral health problems. Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Warrenton) called her back, they spoke for 30 minutes or longer, and Julie was invited down to Richmond to meet with her.
“I got to meet a lot of delegates and senators down there, got the chance to initially pitch my idea, and it was a great foundation for the 2020 session,” Julie said. “Senator Vogel told me ‘I believe in you, I believe in this, let’s get it done.’”
Julie returned to Richmond during the 2020 session, and with Senator Vogel’s help, worked to lobby legislators to support her bill. The legislation, which requires hospitals in the state to develop a comprehensive standard for how to treat people who arrive at their facilities, even voluntarily, in search of some help for a behavioral treatment issue. Given the clear link between behavioral problems and substance issues, Julie said this kind of regulation could have saved Danny’s life and it will save the lives of others.
“We’ve always sort of had this standard assessment in emergency rooms for the physical conditions, but not a consistent system addressing mental health, but they’re so linked,” Julie said. “This bill provides greater consistency statewide in how cases like Danny’s will be handled.”
Danny’s bill passed the House 99-0 and the Senate 40-0. The only no votes at any step in the process were from Dels. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) and Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), who voted against Danny’s Bill in a House committee solely because they thought it didn’t go far enough.
“There were some places in the bill where the word ‘shall’ became ‘may,’ and things like that,” Julie said, while adding that, in just a 45-day legislative session, even many popular bills wind up on the cutting-room floor. “I know we have even more work to do in 2021, and this success has redoubled my commitment to ensuring that we do everything we can in this state to make sure people who need mental health treatment at the hospital can get it.”
In the meantime, Julie and Meredith are keeping Danny’s legacy alive every day with their work at The Recovery Connection. Julie said they are working diligently to get their service incorporated into the state Medicaid program, which, combined with Virginia’s recent expansion of Medicaid, would allow the facility to scale and serve a wider number of patients across the Shenandoah Valley and the state.
“We were always fueled with passion for many years,” Meredith said. “But in light of what happened to Danny, it’s redoubled our commitment to serve the people who need it in our community.”
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Recovery Connection is still in service, helping vulnerable people in the Valley during an acutely vulnerable time. It’s all part of what Julie has called her daily commitment to honoring her late husband in the best ways she can.
“I’ve been struck by the phrase ‘try and be what you miss most about that person,’” Julie said. “Danny was just such a kind, relaxed, genuinely good man. And I choose to honor him by valuing life, valuing every day, and just doing everything I can to help people. This last 18 months has really changed me, and I’m grateful I’ve allowed it to change me in a positive way.”
If you know someone in need of help with substance abuse, or to learn more information about the Recovery Connection, please visit www.therecoveryconnectionllc.com. You can also reach out to Julie and Meredith at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 540-504-7671.