Colleen Francke is creating a safe, sober workplace for women in recovery
“What if I fail?” Colleen Francke wonders. “What if I don’t fail?”
The 32-year-old, who lives in Falmouth, is the founder of Summit Point Seafood, a kelp and mussel farm that will plant its first crop in Casco Bay this winter. Launching the business seems like a logical next step—a Cape Cod native, Francke grew up in an aquaculture community and has worked in mussel farming and lobstering in Maine. But it’s a reality she could not have imagined a decade ago, when she was struggling with alcohol abuse and hit her personal rock bottom.
Francke arrived in Portland in her early 20s to attend Maine College of Art. But it wasn’t long before her drinking got out of control.
“Substance abuse—once it starts, it’s this forcefield that sucks up everything,” she says. “Your drive goes, your friendships go, you have the downward spiral.” She was drinking heavily and making reckless choices that led to feelings of alienation, shame and self-loathing. “I dropped out of school, started working full-time on a mussel farm, had a falling out with that company because of my drinking,” she says. “When you’re dealing with substance abuse, it’s typically one thing after the next.”
Francke grew up in a family that she describes as “rampant with alcoholism.” As a child as young as 7, she knew she wouldn’t escape alcoholism, she says, and she didn’t. As her drinking intensified as an adult, Francke, who continued to take mussel farming and lobstering jobs around Casco Bay, found herself in a “dangerous, unacceptable” relationship and living situation. She recognized that the only way to remove herself from physical and emotional peril was to get sober.
Ten years ago, she sought out recovery—including recovery groups that she’d once vowed she’d never attend, believing she didn’t need them. It was in those groups that she discovered the support that empowered her to get and stay sober. She also found her future calling.
Her new business, Summit Point Seafood, will be dedicated to employing women who have chosen sobriety.
“I’m creating a safe work space for women in substance abuse recovery,” she says.
“Once I decided to get sober, I got linked into a group of strong women. We’re taught, in order to keep your recovery, you have to give it away,” Summit Point Seafood, currently fundraising under the name Salt Sisters, is Francke’s gift to the community that supported her.
The wolf is knocking at the door
According to the 2015 Substance Abuse Trends in Maine State Epidemiological Profile, produced for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, “alcohol continues to be the most frequent substance for which Mainers seek treatment,” with 3,589 admissions reported in 2014. In early 2018, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills broke the news on the opioid crisis in Maine, announcing that “Fentanyl has invaded our state, killing 247 people last year alone…Even as dangerous as heroin is, fentanyl is hundreds times more likely to kill you.”
Substance abuse recovery centers, sober houses and support groups cluster throughout the state, but entering a program is just the first step. For many women facing the long road to sustained recovery, finding a safe, enriching work community outside of rehab and support groups is essential—and not always easy to find.
“What do you do when you need to get back to a regular life?” Francke asks. In entry-level jobs like waitressing and landscaping, “people are partying. You go from a safe place and strong network in recovery to the lion’s den. You’re washing dishes and someone’s drinking a cocktail and doing a line. It’s not an uncommon predicament,” she says.
Sarah Coupe, founder and director of Grace House, a Portland-based sober house for women in recovery, says triggers for relapse are common in the workplace. “ Triggering situations happen. It’s a big struggle. We’re not in a bubble for the rest of our lives.”
This lack of support is a huge motivator for Francke. “We’re out on the water, away from triggers,” says Francke. “I want to give women a place to re-establish themselves, to start again.”
Francke explains that recovery groups usually separate along gender lines, so women can feel free to discuss personal issues that they might not bring up in the company of men. Creating a space that can support intimate, healing conversations is a huge part of her mission. Coupe’s experience supports this reasoning: “Around the opposite sex, we can get distracted.”
It’s no surprise that women face pressures that make recovery difficult, including those unique to bearing and raising children. The struggle to stay sober added to the daily grind of work and child care for many women creates a very real—and uniquely female—challenge.
Drawing on a deep well of experience from her own recovery, Francke is working to alchemize her rock-bottom and peak moments into something sustainable for women with similar challenges. After she quit drinking, she says, she wasn’t sure what to do next. A friend advised, “There are parts of your life that alcoholism took away. You had one goal: to use. Take a look at what those old goals were. They can be anything—things you need to bring back into your life.” For Francke, who had always dreamt about owning her own aquafarm, Summit Point Seafood is a chance to manifest her dream and support others traversing the same difficult road that she has.
Francke is opening her doors to any woman in recovery from any substance, with or without prior experience. “Whether you’ve been sober 10 months or 24 hours, that’s a big deal,” she says. And she welcomes any woman, however far into her sobriety she is.
“Addiction is addiction,” she says, even though it may present itself differently. Some women, for example, don’t drink every day, but when they do drink their alcoholic behavior can be more destructive than an alcoholic woman who is a daily drinker. In her recovery groups, Francke has seen women from all walks of life, and she welcomes one and all to work with her. The only limiting factor? “They can’t be messed up. Then, there’s a liability issue.”
A typical day will include tending to kelp and mussel crops, with breaks in the morning and at lunch to “circle up” for meditation and to discuss “issues in recovery and in life. Women with problems share a lot of similarities.” As she builds this airtight community, one element remains constant. “Water is healing. If you put something in the ground, you’re healing with what you’re cultivating. We plant ‘seeds,’ whether they’re kelp or oysters, and heal alongside what we’re nurturing.”
Seeds of ambition
While Francke has a clear vision for the day-in and day-out running of her business, getting started has not been easy. “At first, everything felt really hard. It didn’t feel right.” However, during the planning phase, Francke experienced a profound realization. “Why not make this for women? Without them, I wouldn’t have this,” she says.
From seeking corporate gear donations to raising startup capital via Salt Sisters, Francke has her nose to the grindstone. “I’ve never written so many emails in my life,” she says, noting sponsors like Grundéns, who have donated “gear for the girls” and other items essential to aquafarming.
Getting Summit Point Seafood off the ground will occur in phases. Rather than taking on an experimental lease of five years, Francke went all in, signing a 20-year standard lease on 100 acres just off Falmouth, between Sturdivant and Basket islands. Phase one involves growing a winter kelp crop, which requires seed—and it’s not cheap. Francke was at a loss for how to raise enough funds until she presented her business plan at a public hearing, required for anyone looking to lease acreage offshore. Todd Jagoutz of Sea Greens Farms, which processes kelp that is supplied to restaurants and wholesale outlets throughout the United States and also provides farm services and supports research and development programs, took notice. “Colleen’s mission, having a female-run farm out there, is pretty special.”
Understanding what it takes to get a kelp-growing operation up and running, Jagoutz was eager to help. “One of the big stumbling points is seed,” Jagoutz says. He signed a purchase agreement with Francke, loaning her $7,000 worth of seed on credit, with the expectation that she will sell the crop to him at harvest. Proceeds from this first kelp crop will be reinvested into the mussel farming leg of the business, promoting year-round employment for Francke’s team. “The more employment, the more women we can help,” she says.
While community is a foundational value for Francke’s business, aquafarming culture also lends itself to neighborly comradery. “We’re out there all winter long,” says Jagoutz. “There’s nobody else out there. There’s no competition. You want to know who your neighbor is in case your boat doesn’t start. It’ll be great having Colleen out there.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, her deep drive and enthusiasm, Francke catches herself wondering if her plan will work out. Still, she trusts that this project has great promise. “My sense is that this has the potential to get bigger than just a farm. I want to make Salt Sisters it’s own non-profit and help women in recovery get other businesses started.” From hair stylists to other aquafarmers, Francke plans to nurture and empower the women she employs. “This project helps women get sober, stay sober and does good for the environment. This is a way I can really give back.”
For more info about Summit Point Seafood and Salt Sisters, visit summitpointseafood.com
To donate to Salt Sisters, see the GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/salt-sisters
Chelsea Terris Scott writes plays, short stories and freelance journalism. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Portland.