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Unsung Heroes: Transforming Lives

In 1980, I awoke in “The Shelter”. This was a non-medical detox owned and operated by South County Mental Health (SCMH) located on Federal Highway in Delray Beach, FL. A crusty dude named Frank Hunt ran the joint and, while I laid comatose on an army cot in his detox, Frank had spoken by phone with my parents, convincing them that they were killing me with their love. He suggested, and they agreed, to cut off all communication and financial support for 90 days. This caused me to make a difficult choice: go live in a bush or accept Frank’s offer to move into a halfway house also owned and operated by SCMH.meeting2It was known as Palm Trail Lodge. There I met Jim Fallon, Ron Martin, Dave D’Oreo and another who shall remain anonymous as he is still amongst us. They were all in recovery themselves and on the SCMH payroll. If memory serves, this program housed a total of 16 men in a nice neighborhood. The program was subsidized by federal funds. Residents were responsible for paying $65.00 a week and this included breakfast, lunch and a hot meal every evening in the dining room. We were expected to awaken by 6:30 am, make our beds and be ready to go to work or to look for work by 7:30 am. Rules were enforced and, while a few did get kicked out for positive screenings, most were booted out for other rule infractions before they ever returned to active use. The staff was compassionate, but firm. Palm Trail Lodge was a real opportunity to change your life. At $65.00 a week, you either took advantage of it or the next guy on the very long waiting list was given his shot. I remained a resident for over six months and witnessed at least 50 guys come and go because they weren’t ready to play by the rules. My path would include a relapse some five years later that kept me out for many years; however there are many Palm Trail graduates who are still clean and sober today, some 34 years later.

What made this such an incredible experience was not the property or even the low rent and hot meals. It was those four committed individuals who staffed this experiment. These guys made a real difference in hundreds, if not thousands, of broken lives and they did it for love. Yes; they were paid. But that paycheck wasn’t what motivated them. It was simply a means that allowed them to spend their days and evenings engaged in what they were so passionate about: helping the next guy discover a way out.  This is the dream that inspires most owner/operators of a recovery residence. It’s what drives them. Do they get paid? Yes. Do they get paid adequately to compensate for their time, commitment, experience and the resulting positive outcomes for which their contributions are often responsible? Certainly not, when measured in dollars. They earn fulfillment. They awaken with purpose and go to sleep each night with the firm conviction that their little corner of the world is a bit better off for their contribution.

Do they save everyone? Not by a long shot; but it isn’t for lack of effort. Addiction is fatal. Good people die every day from direct and indirect causes attributable to addiction. The stakes are high and the people we’re talking about here are more aware of this than any other group. These are not substance abuse treatment professionals. They are peers. Theirs is the love born from hard won experience. Many possess questionable backgrounds and stumbled through life as they sought freedom from the grips of their own addiction. Their effectiveness in helping to guide others springs from the well of their personal experience. Over the last thirty years, I have met many real heroes. Men and women who work on the front lines of addiction, in the trenches, where ugliness, despair and frustration are common distractions from hope, faith and perseverance. These dedicated folk discovered a light within that sustains their effort even in the worst and darkest of circumstances. They fight for someone else’s son, daughter, mother or father, particularly when that person is ill-equipped to fight for themselves. They never give up. And, because they spend upwards of six to nine months working with their residents, they get the opportunity to lead by example. It’s amazing to witness up close and personal. These champions aren’t interested in applause or even recognition. Their mission is to identify “the willing” amidst the sea of bodies flowing through their programs and pour themselves into restoring human beings to a level of self-sufficiency where they can then commence an incredible journey of self-discovery and purposefulness.  These heroes take in the wretched and return whole, useful citizens to their families and communities. With all the recent press regarding the “problems with sober homes”, we must not minimize the significance of these heroes’ contribution. They are truly “unsung”.  If your son or daughter, mother or father isn’t in need of their love, consider yourself blessed. That means that it’s likely your neighbor’s. Nearly ten percent of our nation’s adult population meets the criteria for substance abuse treatment and the entire system is currently capable of serving one-tenth that need. We don’t need less beds and fewer heroes. Our national well-being depends largely on how effectively we gather together to meet this challenge head-on.

Are their “bad operators” out there in our communities? You bet there are. Do some of these appear at first glance to be quality programs focused on the resident’s well-being? Absolutely! This is a primary reason why FARR was born. The “good guys” listed as Certified Residences on the FARR website have voluntarily submitted to a thorough examination of their policies, procedures and properties by trained inspectors. FARR Certification has integrity. We are often mistaken as a trade association that accepts any member provided they pay the annual fee. This is definitely not accurate. Just ask current members if they were required to make procedural changes and/or property improvements before their certification was granted. Better yet, ask any of those whom we rejected for having failed to meet our minimum standards. FARR takes this very seriously. Our primary mission is to protect residents by ensuring Certified Residences comply with the standards specific to the NARR Support Level for which they have applied.

If you’re a treatment provider, then you likely have recovery residences calling on you for referrals. If you are not doing so already, please consider asking these marketers “Are you FARR Certified?”  As Eldridge Cleaver commented when addressing the civil rights challenges of fifty years ago: “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.”

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