Residential Recovery Program Considers Decades Ahead

In the two years before Vineyard House opened, there were two dozen alcohol and drug-related deaths on the Island. The founders of the nonprofit sober house never did a formal needs survey - the need seemed clear enough. There was a cavernous gap in health services between the hospital's three-day detox and the return to everyday life.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Vineyard House is still a relative newcomer to the landscape of Island health care. But as the only residential facility for alcoholics and addicts in the fragile early months of recovery, many Islanders can't imagine the Vineyard without this service.

Substance abuse is a problem that, by its nature, can elude the public eye. But the waiting list for Vineyard House shows the need is still great, and statistics show that Martha's Vineyard still has rates of drug and alcohol abuse far above state and national averages.

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On Friday, Vineyard House will host its 10th annual Water Tasting By the Sea - the alcohol-free, scenic soiree to raise the funds needed for the daily operation of its program.

"We're very excited about our anniversary. It's a time to stop and look back and see where we are," said Brian J. Mackey, who has been executive director of the nonprofit for nearly three years. "The Water Tasting is the major fundraiser for us. Residents pay rent, but that is only 25 per cent of our annual budget - and that is our only reliable income."

The Water Tasting will be from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Captain Flanders House on the edge of Bliss Pond in Chilmark. The Flying Elbows, Maynard Silva and Rick Bausman and the Beetlebung Steel Band will perform. There will be a raw bar and hors d'oeuvres by Jan Buhrman of The Kitchen Porch. Preeminent Island auctioneer Clarence A. (Trip) Barnes 3rd will auction off original artwork, exotic vacations, signed Babe Ruth memorabilia, a vintage biplane ride and a cache of other items.

And naturally, there will be a wide selection of both sparkling and still, domestic and imported waters - and celebrity water judges. There's no rain date for inclement weather, only additional water (albeit unbottled).

"It's a great party with great food," board of directors and advisors president Dana Anderson said. "It's a first class Vineyard evening - a great celebration."

In addition to being the evening's auctioneer, Mr. Barnes was one of the original founders of Vineyard House. Hazel Teagan, Julie Norman and Dr. Charles Silberstein asked him to help launch the project, in part, because he had been running the closest thing the Island had to a sober house at that time.

Mr. Barnes got involved in a number of ways. He went door to door with apple pies, convincing neighbors of the first residence to support the project. He turned to members of "the club," as he called it, for help when the residence needed work.

Before the first year had past, Vineyard House was operating with two resident buildings - for far less money than they ever thought possible.

Now Vineyard House is entering a new stage. It has begun a capital campaign to build a new facility on 4.4 acres of land in Vineyard Haven that it bought at a reduced price from Jerry Goodale last year. It plans to move into a single location tucked into the woods off of Holmes Hole Road, and sell its three separate resident houses - two of which are over 100 years old.

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"Our new facility would concentrate all of our activities in one location," Mr. Mackey said, noting that two modular residences designed by Heikki Soikkeli are planned - one for 25 men and one for 12 women. "The idea of having us in one location is no small matter," he added.

Building a combined facility would increase the organization's efficiency and create a stronger sense of community by allowing all residents to participate in some meetings and activities. It would also increase the capacity of the program from 24 to 37 - and for the first time accommodate small children in the care of a resident. The plans also call for office space and a large meeting room that would be open to host 12-step meetings.

"We've done this program from grassroots beginnings and it has evolved over the years to three houses - but they're all in desperate need of maintenance on a regular basis," Ms. Anderson said. "The miracle of the program is it has become so successful despite the limitations of the buildings," she added.

For the residents, the new building would mean nicer facilities and a stronger sense of security and privacy. While the parking lots of the current buildings are visible from the street, the new facilities would be off of the main drag.

When the setting changes, the program will stay the same. Every resident commits to staying at least six months and agrees to be tested for drugs and alcohol. They must work, pay rent, attend weekly house meetings and participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Rule-breaking is dealt with swiftly. If a resident uses drugs or alcohol, they must leave the program immediately. But that does not necessarily end the person's relationship with Vineyard House.

"Relapse is a part of recovery," Mr. Mackey said. Some residents do return to try again. Including repeat cases, Vineyard House has taken in 280 residents over the last 10 years. Ms. Anderson notes that 280 may not sound like huge number - but it is.

Anonymity is considered a fundamental part of the recovery process, meaning that Mr. Mackey and Ms. Anderson can't talk about specific cases - even success stories. It is always difficult to compete against other worthy Island causes for a limited number of philanthropic dollars, Ms. Anderson said. But anonymity can make it additionally challenging.

"We can't have poster children for Vineyard House, as the hospital and the Y were able to do," Ms. Anderson said. "We can't show the product of our work."

Fund-raising is also be difficult because of prejudice against addicts, Ms. Anderson said. Some would-be donors would prefer to have their names associated with other causes.

"It's not a moral issue. It's a chemical, medical, physical issue in which people get caught and seriously wounded in the process," Ms. Anderson said. "It's a complicated disease because it's mental, emotional, physical, spiritual. People lose their anchor.

"I absolutely believe it's genetic in many respects and some people were doomed before they were born by the genetics of the family. I was. I can say that," she continued. "I know the problem intimately. I know what it does to families. I know what it does to individuals. I know the hostage-taking and the wreckage and the pain. But I also know the profound and great joy of recovery."

Last year, Mr. Mackey too broke his anonymity as a recovering addict.

"I was a resident of Vineyard House five years ago. I was there for a whole year," he said. "I have an awful lot of respect for our residents, I really do. The fact there's no cure, you have to be vigilant. But the reward is tremendous."

This part of Mr. Mackey's background makes him even better-suited to run Vineyard House, Ms. Anderson said. It gives him empathy and a deep understanding of what Vineyard House residents have been through and will go through.

"He intimately knows the black hole and he, in my estimation, is an enormously strong and clear and decent power of example to people who are struggling," Ms. Anderson said. "There's no cure for this. That's the hard part. You can put it in remission. You can be healthy. But it's an ‘ing' program. It's a gerund. Recovering is a constant, present evolution of being."

Fund-raising is also a challenge because the people who best understand Vineyard House's value are the residents. But they are not often able to contribute money because of their recent substance abuse.

So far, the silent phase of the capital campaign has raised $1.1 million in the last year and a half, including $150,000 from internal volunteers - every board member has donated. The public phase of fundraising is set to begin soon.

"Our goal is $4 million to be able to build a facility and endow the program so we don't have to nickel and dime everyone for the rest of our lives," Mr. Mackey said.

"We need everybody to step up and help us. That's where we are. We need the community in general to know we need everybody to get this facility," Ms. Anderson said. "We need to be adopted as a cause. We need to be the sexy issue of the moment or whatever you want to call it. It's a life and death mission."

One Vineyard House graduate, who participated in a 2006 writing collection called Graduate Stories, would agree:

"Many people I have known have died from addiction. I figure that I am a miracle," he wrote. "I don't know how it happened, but I am extremely grateful. Thank you, Vineyard House, for giving me a safe place to start this journey called life."

Tickets for the tenth annual Water Tasting By-the-Sea to benefit Vineyard House may be purchased by calling Vineyard House at 508-693-8580. Suggested donation $75.