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When is a drug problem an asset?

HUNTINGTON -- About six years ago, a group of people interested in reducing alcohol and drug abuse suffering bought the old Lincoln Elementary School, carved up some meeting spaces, put in bunk beds and refitted the kitchen. Now it's called The Healing Place, a name and concept copied from a project in Louisville, Ky.

I went in a week ago, expecting the usual checklist of treatment center features -- counselors, a supervising physician, housekeeping staff, maybe some empathetic looking professionals carrying clipboards.

No, said Bob Hansen, the retired executive director of Prestera Community Mental Health Center and a founding board member of this nonprofit.

He shook his head. There is no medical staff here. The place is for addiction of any kind, but if someone also has a psychiatric problem that responds well to medicine and requires monitoring, this may not be the best place for him.

"This is a unique approach," said Matt Boggs, development associate for The Healing Place. "People who go through the program give back to the people who come in."

That means the people who are working on their own addiction problems are the ones who wash clothes, scrub floors and tend the significant vegetable garden. They even cook the meals. Everyone takes a food-handler's course and gets a license. Their real strength: peer-to-peer counseling.

That peer counselor knows how the new guy lying in the detox bed, maybe homeless, jobless and sick, is feeling, because he was there. And the counselor can say that to the new guy, and it helps, Boggs said.

That doesn't happen overnight, of course. When men first arrive -- it's men only for now -- they have little freedom and few duties other than detoxifying. They get clean clothes if they need them, and they trudge off to class every day, about a mile's walk each way, rain or shine. There they learn about alcohol and drugs, history and biology. The walk offers healthy, cleansing exercise, as well as discipline. Unlike many rehab centers, the men are never really sealed off from a community of temptations, Boggs said. They may walk past old haunts or connections.

As they move through the program over months, they gain more freedom, privacy and trust among their fellows, who hold them accountable for their actions. They move to a different room and take on more responsibilities.

There's a waiting list, about three months at the moment. While you are waiting, you are expected to call in as often as possible. That's one way they know you are serious.

Boggs said he called every day for two weeks before he got in. He had been everywhere, even the Betty Ford Clinic, the best that money could buy, he said. But it didn't matter, because he wasn't ready. Besides, there is a difference between a pricey rehab center that in some ways has to cater to the client and family and a group of fellow recovering addicts who don't.

The Healing Place does not charge a fee. It is funded by grants and donations. It costs $32.50 per man per day. A stay at Highland Hospital by contrast, an unnecessary level of care for these men, is at least $250 a day. Regional jail costs $48.65 a day.

"This is a bargain," Hansen said.

Boggs is a 2012 graduate. Now he works on expanding The Healing Place from 35 beds to 100. At that point, he expects the cost to drop to $25 a day. They are working to raise an additional $360,000 to complete an upper floor they created in the old gymnasium.

More than 375 men have entered since it opened. Some went through detox and just left. Of the 60 who completed the program, 39 are still sober and almost all of those are employed, a success rate of 65 percent. Success rates for rehab centers are notoriously difficult to pin down. Addicts often need more than one go before they hit the right program at the right time and really start to change. This is a marvelous rate by any comparison.

Thirty-nine people who are no longer killing themselves with alcohol and drugs? Thirty-nine people newly employed or employable? Or mending their families and relationships? Thirty-nine reclaimed fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, friends, taxpayers? Thirty-nine and counting.

"There's a hidden workforce in this state who are languishing because we're not giving them the tools they need," Hansen said. "We've got to tap into that potential."

The Healing Place exists on donations. Cash is always needed, but Boggs said they also welcome men's clothes, men's toiletry items, towels, twin sheets and standard pillowcases, blankets, paper towels and cleaning supplies. Donors may call 304-523-4673 for information. The Huntington Area Food Bank aids them in getting food, so donations there also help The Healing Place.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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