Amy Bonillas says she wants to change the world. Keep in mind, she isn’t a wide-eyed, young person brimming with idealism. She is older, wiser and has faced her fair share of adversity. It’s this background that propels her to try and make a meaningful impact on people’s lives – lives that mirror what hers looked like years before.
Bonillas is a newly hired alcohol and drug counselor in Los Banos, a city with deep agricultural roots in California’s Central Valley. Before turning her life around, she had her own lived experience and hardships. Through counseling, recovery programs, therapy and education (she is currently attending law school), she has defied being an addiction statistic. She wants to give back to those who need the support most.
“People can be less forthcoming until they know that you have had a similar experience,” Bonillas said, who previously worked as an alcohol and drug counselor in an adult residential unit in Stanislaus County for six years. “I’m here to allow someone else to be vulnerable. I’m there to tell them, ‘No matter what your past looks like, your new journey starts today.’”
LINKS, the program that supports Bonillas’ position, is spearheaded through Merced County Behavioral Health Recovery Services. The county, like much of California and other places across the U.S., is in a full opioid crisis—a major contributor to modern substance use epidemic. According to the California Department of Public Health, there were 29 deaths related to opioid overdoses in Merced County in 2020. Additional state data shows there were 71 visits to the emergency department due to opioids and 21 hospitalizations over that same period.
Kristie Marion, chief administrative officer and chief nurse executive of Memorial Hospital Los Banos, believes locally based alcohol and drug counseling can be an effective grassroots approach. The hospital features its own Substance Use Navigator, which provides support to patients in need who come in through the emergency department. Sutter Health, the not-for-profit health system that includes Memorial Hospital Los Banos, provided a community health investment to Merced County Behavioral Health Recovery Services that helps fund Bonillas’ position, as well as a to-be hired mental health counselor.
“Meeting people where they are in the moment with their addiction struggles, whether that is on the street or in the emergency department, can really jumpstart the miracle of sobriety,” she said. “The counselor truly can act as a lifeline who links individuals in need with services, treatment and other resources, which can lead to overall improved health and well-being.”
Bonillas has called the Central Valley home her entire life. Originally from Modesto, she moved to Los Banos in 2018 with her now husband. While she feels that familiarity can be an advantage, she also knows that it takes collaboration with other organizations to make her work most impactful. She said she has already began connecting with the Merced County Rescue Mission, the hospital’s adjoining Rural Health Clinic, local not-for-profit Golden Valley Health Center and local law enforcement. She also has been getting to know the local unhoused community and where they gather. She plans to do whatever it takes to best engage with them—offering water, dog food for their pets or personal hygiene products.
“It is not one-size-fits-all work,” she said. “But connecting with just one really can make a difference.”