Professional News

UK alum, extension professor provides a 'Voice of Hope' inside and outside of the classroom

Video by Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 19, 2024) — Alex Elswick grew up with everything he needed. With two great parents, a roof over his head and good grades in school, he was a young person who wouldn’t lead people to believe substance use disorder would be in his future.

“I come from a really privileged background,” said Elswick. “My dad is a doctor, I grew up in the suburbs and kind of had every advantage. That mattered; it mattered in terms of my addiction and my recovery.”

Today, Elswick is an assistant University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service (CES) professor in the School of Human Environmental Sciences. He has both a master’s and doctoral degree from the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and his work focuses on substance use prevention and recovery across the Commonwealth. He is a founding member of Lexington’s Voices of Hope, a substance use disorder community center focused on research-based recovery treatment.

Elswick’s passion for recovery education did not initially blossom from research. For many, addiction can start before an individual ever touches a substance. At age 18, he underwent wisdom tooth surgery and was prescribed opioid painkillers. Risk factors, such as family history or mental illness can seriously increase one’s likelihood for addiction. Elswick faced both.

“I took it exactly as it was prescribed by my provider, but with all those risk factors, I got addicted,” Elswick said. “Two years later, I woke up and I had a $200-a-day opioid addiction.”

Elswick describes his addiction in the years following his surgery as "nothing special." He experienced homelessness, unemployment and isolation. Finally, after checking into a treatment shelter in Dayton, Ohio, Elswick was able to get and stay sober for six months.

While his sobriety was an exciting milestone, Elswick faced barriers and questions many face when leaving addiction treatment. Where could he go for housing? How would he find employment? This is where his connections to the UK community made him luckier than most.

“I told everybody I was going to do tobacco research, but really I was just digging holes,” Elswick chuckled. “It was such a great job for me early in my recovery. I got to be outside, working with my hands.”

For Elswick there was a sense of healing in this work. Through it, he discovered his own healing wasn’t the whole story; he wanted to work in drug and alcohol counseling. One afternoon, colleague Kenny Hunter asked him if he had put any thought into his future. Elswick shared his new dream of working in recovery, and it opened a door he didn’t even know was there.

Hunter's wife is Jennifer Hunter, UK CES professor and director of the School of Human Environmental Sciences at Martin-Gatton CAFE. She and Elswick were introduced, and it wasn’t long before he returned to the classroom.

With the support of Hunter and other UK faculty, Elswick used his own experience with addiction to address needs he noticed in his community.

“We looked at all of the help I had in my recovery,” Elswick said. “With my employment, education, mental and physical health — you could go down the list of everything I had access to that put me in a better position to recover. But 99% of folks who have addictions in our community don’t have access to most of those resources.”

Elswick knew they needed to create a one-stop-shop for recovery. This model already exists in recovery community organizations (RCOs). After researching as much as they could on the topic, Elswick and his colleagues traveled to see some RCOs in action that are making real change in their communities.

Thus, Voices of Hope was born — an RCO in the heart of Lexington working to prove to those struggling that change can be made at any stage. The Voices team upholds the unique approach of supporting other pathways of recovery besides complete sobriety, or abstinence. Voices of Hope supports individuals who want to practice abstinence and provides programming from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous for those interested. However, the team of coaches at Voices encourages any and all steps toward recovery, no matter the pace.

“If you think about any other kind of behavior change, people typically don’t change all at once,” said Elswick. “If I want to lose weight, it’s usually a process. Even if I have 50 pounds to lose, if I go to my doctor and say I’m only willing to lose 10, he or she will not kick me out of their office. It’s an improvement in your health, and at Voices, we recognize that by meeting you where you are.”

Voices of Hope began in 2014 as a group that provided access to naloxone or Narcan when it was very stigmatized and difficult to find. Now, they are a fully operational RCO with two Lexington locations and thousands served. Providing access to deaf and hard-of-hearing services, a partnership with the Department of Corrections to place recovery coaches in prisons, and creating mobile recovery units to provide resources in hard-to-reach areas of Louisville and Lexington are just a few of the major projects Voices has achieved in the last few years.

Today, Elswick continues to be motivated by the same community that lifted him out of his substance use disorder and into his life of service. This includes his family and those at UK who encouraged him to work and do research in the substance use disorder space.

“It’s a cliché, I suppose, to say I wouldn’t be here without them, but I think it’s literally true,” said Elswick. “There’s no single job on the planet better suited for me than exactly the job that I have, and I believe strongly that if it weren’t for Kenny and Dr. Hunter advocating for me, I would not be where I am now.”

At Martin-Gatton CAFE, Elswick has taught classes on substance use, family and society, family resource management and currently teaches the course "Addiction is a Chronic Disease." Working with students and inspiring change is something he’s immensely grateful for.

“The University of Kentucky, from the beginning, supported me and supported recovery,” Elswick said. “I never experienced stigma and I never experienced shame from the university. I always heard university leadership saying ‘this is an issue that we want to get behind.’”

For more information on Voices of Hope, visit


As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.