Putting lives back together

Putting lives back together – Damon House drug abuse rehabilitation center, New Brunswick, New Jersey, includes related article

Linda Feldman

Putting Lives Back Together

What can drugs do to young lives? No one knows better than young people who have dropped out of school, lost jobs, or become alienated from family and friends because of drug abuse.

Rehabilitation centers, like the one featured in the following article, are helping young men and women regain control of their lives and replace destructive patterns with more positive ones. Often the process begins with understanding why they turned to drugs in the first place.

Starting Over At Damon House

Damon House is a fixture in urban New Brunswick, New Jersey. Formerly an armory, its quiet gray exterior is deceiving.

The immaculate floors, the flowers that ring the building, the well-manicured patches of grass, the small vegetable garden next to the parking lot: These details give clues to how the fragments of 64 lives are being pieced back together, bit by bit.

Damon House is a residential, drug-free therapeutic community for drug and alcohol addiction. Of the 11 residential drug rehabilitation centers in New Jersey, Damon House is one of only a handful that accepts indigent people. About 99 percent of the 64 clients –most of whom are 18 to 35 years old–can’t pay their own way.

About half of the clients come through the court system. The other half come on their own.

“Most of our clients come to us with nothing,” says Ileen Bradley, Damon House’s executive director. “Most have no money. Those who come from the court system come with the shirts on their back. They’ve all seen bad times, hard times. They are beginning to see the damage they’ve done to their lives.”

At 32, Bradley has worked at Damon House for 6 years. Petite, blond, and very lively, she is dead serious about her work.

Various agencies provide support

As Bradley explains, the program costs about $17,000 per client per year. Support comes from a variety of sources, including the National Institute for Drug Abuse, state departments of health and welfare, and private donors.

USDA food assistance programs also help. Most Damon House residents are eligible for food stamps. Under national rules governing the Food Stamp Program, participants in drug rehabilitation centers can be certified by local food stamp offices. Centers then can buy food for participants’ meals from retailers and wholesalers authorized to accept food stamps.

A representative from the local food stamp office comes to Damon House to certify eligible participants. “Food stamps offset much of our food costs and make a huge difference in our budget,” says Bradley.

Because Damon House is considered a residential child care institution, it also receives support from the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs for meals served to residents who are under age 21. The facility gets $1.42 per lunch and 91 cents per breakfast as well as USDA-donated foods.

Teaching coping skills and sharing

While Damon House may be technically a “residential institution,” it feels more like a large family.

“We are all brothers and sisters here,” says Bradley. “We run the house as a family runs a home. We maintain the facility nearly completely ourselves. We have a maintenance crew, a laundry crew, a gardening crew.”

Teaching residents to deal with responsibility and life’s stresses is central to Damon House’s mission.

“This is a tough program,” says Bradley. “What we do here is give clients the most stressful, volatile situations while they are safely inside these walls. We have them find their weaknesses here and teach them to learn patience, sharing, how to cope. If they can make it here, they have a good chance of making it in the real world.

“Much of what we do is based on behavior modification. Clients here are involved in their own lives and in everyone’s lives. They are involved in decisionmaking. There is a lot of group therapy and peer pressure.”

Damon House residents progress through several levels, each with a different degree of independence.

“New clients begin with an orientation,” Bradley explains. “They get to know the stringent rules, responsibilities, and expectations. Then they start at level one and work their way up.”

At what’s called “peer three,” clients can go back to school. Damon House has a GED (Graduate Equivalency Degree) program, and clients can also go to college or a trade school. “Peer four” is what Bradley calls “re-entry into the real world.” For about 6 to 8 months, clients live at Damon House, but go back out to work. If they are in school, they must also work.

“Our staff counselors work with the clients to find jobs,” says Bradley. “Clients earn money and develop a savings account. They have to have enough start-up money to make it on their own.”

After “peer four,” clients have “after care” or “pregraduation.” They live on their own, in space approved by the Damon House staff.

Continuing support helps clients cope

To help clients deal with stress and control the urge to use drugs, pregrads come back every week to meet with their counselors. There are also support groups for them as well as for people who have completely left Damon House.

For Damon House grads, staying drug-free can be a lifelong challenge. “Their biggest problem,” says Bradley, “is that they forget where they were– addicted to some drug. Outside pressures start again, people offer them drugs. It’s hard to resist.”

Some succeed, and some fail, but it is the successes that keep Bradley going.

“Most of those who succeed, who eventually graduate and stay straight, are high school graduates with some maturity. They know they can either straighten up or keep getting high until they die. They are the ones who understand that they really will die.

“The ones who don’t make it don’t realize that they are cheating themselves. We go on. They aren’t cheating us. It’s their lives they are playing with.”

For more information contact: Ilene Bradley Damon House P.O. Box 76 New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903 Telephone: (201) 828-3988

article and photos by Linda Feldman

Photo: Work is an important part of life at Damon House, according to executive director, Ileen Bradley (bottom photo). Above, two residents work in the kitchen, cleaning up after a meal.

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