Welcome to Argyle Georgia, a small inland community of 212 souls living on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.
This is the home of Bridges of Hope, the first residential drug and alcohol recovery center in a chain of five - four facilities that house men and one women's facility. It sits on what was a small farm that was purchased in 1986. A group, including several local folks, set about seeking help and received materials, help and a bit of money to get it off the ground. By January of 1987 it was ready for its first residents.
The farmhouse could only accommodate sixteen residents, so over time a dormitory and other buildings were added to enable over fifty residents. CNN did a story on the place back in 1992 which brought a lot of new applicants. In 1991 a second facility was built in Cauncey GA. A third opened in Louisville in 1996, followed by a fourth in 2001 (Morvin GA) and a fifth in 2010 (Alamo.)
The place was built on the concept of tough love, and relies upon residents that have accumulated sober time within the organization to lead the way, assisted by numerous volunteers that assist in a multitude of ways.
Bridges of Hope is not a psychiatric or medical facility, and it does not accept juveniles or anyone with a history of violence. What it does do is provide a structured environment for men and women to learn the program of Alcoholics Anonymous and incorporate it into their lives.
This fills a badly needed niche in the recovery community. There are the posh institutions that charge tens of thousands of dollars a month, usually available only to the wealthy or those with top-flight hospitalization plans. There are homeless shelters that offer little support and recovery and are typically government funded. There are other places that are funded by churches or other large institutions. This place is self supporting - with a bit of help here and there from individual outside donors.
The recommended length of stay is six months, during which time residents will learn or re-learn basic life skills and work the first seven steps of the 12 step AA program while operating within the confines of the structured environment. The cost is $ 800 per month, and occasionally there are partial or full scholarships provided by private individuals.
The residents themselves handle cooking, cleaning, laundry, gardening, plumbing, electrical and mechanical repairs and a myriad of other tasks. I heard several times that it always seems that just when one is needed an automotive technician, master carpenter, plumber, chef, electrician - you name it, whatever the need is it seems a resident shows up with those skills at just the right time. In fact, all of the staff - of all levels - have at one time been patients at one or another of the Bridges' facilities.
Here is the shop for mechanical repairs . . .
. . . and here is part of the wood-shop.
Recently it was decided that a green-house would be handy. Several of the residents that were carpenters remodeled the old pig pen, and it happens that a horticulturist showed up right on time to oversee the details of the greenhouse structure, the soils and the planting.
A wide variety of plants are maturing, some that are decorative and can be sold to help support the mission.
Others will help give a jump start on planting in the spacious vegetable gardens the residents grow.
Yes, it is Christmas here too, and even the scare-crow got in on the act this year.
But not everything is work related.
This is a pavilion with weight lifting equipment. There is also a basketball court and an enclosed area with ping-pong and billiards tables available to the residents.
The center of the property holds a pond, around which are numerous sitting areas and picnic tables.
There is even a spot called "Serenity Trail," but after three days of torrential rains it could just as easily be used as a kayak lagoon.
Another recent addition is a memorial that residents built in the wood-shop.
"Harley" was a chocolate Labrador Retriever that kept residents company for over sixteen years. Harley died six months ago, and by the appreciation shown the dog it was deeply loved by the men.
A couple of younger dogs now walk the grounds, watching me closely as I sloshed about taking photos.
Given the proximity to Christmas, I was only able to meet a few of the staff and one of the volunteers. Meet Brent Barber.
Brent has been coming here and working with the men for over ten years now. He is fun to listen to - he alternately lectures, cajoles, jokes, wheedles - whatever he needs to do to get his point across. He spoke about honesty and integrity, about obsessive thinking and discipline. He kept them men engaged - laughing one moment and dead serious the next.
Brent owns several residences in a local town that operate as half-way houses, giving men who need a place to grow from here the opportunity to re-integrate themselves into society. This place also works closely with the community, giving men a chance to ply their skills in ways that benefit the area as a whole. On Sundays, they all pack up and attend a local church, and twice during the week the men can go to a local town and attend outside AA meetings.
I was able to speak with several of the residents who were willing to share some of their stories. Although they all were willing to share their full names, I thought it best to only share the first initial of their last name.
Meet Preston S., who is the current assistant manager of this facility.
Preston is thirty years old, and has been in and out of treatment centers since he was fourteen years old. He had eight years of continuous sobriety up until a couple of years ago. He had been working as a counselor in a treatment facility, and in retrospect he says he was like the fitness trainer that forgets to work out himself. He wrapped himself up in the lives of his clients, and rather than pursuing his own AA program, over time he started pursuing money and objects.
This left him vulnerable, and when he was prescribed pain medication following a surgery it was a short trip back into full blown active addiction. A short while later, with a blood alcohol content of .42 and a huge supply of various prescriptions, some of the men from Bridges of Hope found him holed up in a hotel room. That was November 18th of 2013, and he has been sober and at Bridges since.
About five months ago he was transferred from another of the Bridges' facilities to come here and help manage the place. He is passionate about this place, his sobriety and the disease of addiction as a whole. This is a ruthless condition, and his last four weeks have been marked with the death by overdose of five former patients and friends that he was close with. "I have to focus on those that make it" says Preston. "This is the only disease I know of that tells the sufferer that they don't have a disease."
Preston feels that gratitude is an action, and he is showing his gratitude for others having saved his life by staying on here and giving back. "This place has given me a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of community and a sense of direction" says Preston. "It also gives me the opportunity to give something of value - to leave something better than I found it."
He has no immediate plans, but at some point would like to finish college and start a family. He had taken pre-med earlier in his twenties, so an advanced degree is not that far out of grasp.
Here is a sign on the wall in the office that I liked:
Meet Barry R. Barry is 51 years old with 2 daughters and a son, ranging in age from two and a half years old to 21 years old.
Barry was born and raised in South Carolina, but has spent the last two decades operating his own general contracting firm in Delaware. Barry has never been in a treatment program, although about a year ago he did go to a detox once.
It has been the slow, downward spiral for Barry. After a brief deep bout with alcoholism in his teens he married and devoted himself to business and family. For years he had an idyllic life, but slowly, one by one, all things worthwhile in his life have been stripped from him as a direct result of his increased dependence on Alcohol. Here for five months now, Barry has built furniture for the center and recently has been asked to act as assistant office manager.
"I never thought I would be able to get sober, let alone be sober and happy" says Barry. "I had lost all hope. Last year, about the only person I ever saw was the owner of the liquor store. I didn't have a chance of getting sober without a structured environment, and this place gave me that."
"Here we learn that we can actually stay sober by helping another alcoholic or drug addict - in fact only and alcoholic or drug addict can really help another beat this thing. The guys who don't make it are the ones who think that life is something that "happens to" them. They are the ones who are always blaming their troubles on someone or something else - the guys who refuse to take responsibility for their actions."
Concludes Barry: "I don't know if I will be able to put my family back together. I am real comfortable right now here in this environment - I could see myself staying here and helping other men long term."
Here is another of those signs hanging on the walls that I saw some humor in:
Meet Tim T.
Tim is 29 years old, a certified mechanic and the custodial parent of a 7 year old boy named James. Tim came here September 18th, and is set to graduate on March 18th - his 30th birthday.
Tim experimented with pot and cocaine early in high-school, but because his mother and father had him working at an early age, he stayed pretty busy. He broke both legs in a pole-vaulting accident at the age of 17, and had his first taste of pain-killers. It turned out bad, but for the most part Tim was able to stay away from the drugs for a number of years.
Tim has worked hard to become a master mechanic, and as a result has paid outright for his home and his car. After another accident and a compressed spine a few years ago he was once again prescribed heavy drugs for pain. This time it was on. In no time the prescriptions were not enough - he had to supplement them with pills he bought from others he knows. The next thing he had a $500 a day habit. He was paying others to go to pain clinics and get prescriptions. He stole from his parents - and spent all of his paychecks. And still it wasn't enough. The last two days before payday every week he would find himself going into withdrawals.
He has never been to a long term rehab before, but he did go to a medical detox once a while back. He came because he was on the verge of selling his house and his vehicle to get more money to get more drugs - and the thought of losing the home he had worked so hard to build for his son jarred him into a bit of reality.
Tim's parents live close by, and are taking care of his son while he is here. He sees his son on the weekends, and does his best to answer the questions that an inquisitive seven year old asks. The best he can do is tell the boy that he has to work on himself for a while, and that this is the place to do it.
"Alcohol never had been my thing, but I know if I started it I would abuse it too" says Tim. He speaks at great length of his son James - of his challenges and successes. He talks about how the a special teacher at school has helped him immensely, and how only at the age of 7 James can carry on a conversation for hours with him.
"James has never gone without food or without good clothes or whatever he needs, and I don't want him ever to have to" says Tim. "My mom thought I would be here for two months, and couldn't understand when I told her I was staying six months. I look at it like this. If I stay another four months now and it keeps me sober the rest of my life - what is four months? It isn't that big of a deal in the long run. And I need this time."
When Tim finishes the program, he is going to run an automobile repair shop for his father. He has busied himself repairing and maintaining all of the equipment at the center, and works hard to help the new man coming in.
Bridges is a unique place - operating on the concept that a short while after a man gets sober, the best thing for him is to help others get sober. It has worked for some decades now, and appears to be quite healthy and capable of operating many more. But I have to admit - sitting down to dinner, conversing with these men, creating relationships just in the short time I have been here - it feels eerie in a way. Knowing that statistics say in a short while half will be dead or imprisoned long term - which ones? What could I say or do to help any of them? I guess I can just be grateful that while many of these men have nothing coming for Christmas, the one things they all have this year is the present of hope. And that is about as good a present as any of us could wish for.
I would like to acknowledge the help of Bill B., current manager and graduate of this facility. Bill is a business and economics professor from Maine with two years sober.
Today's parting shot comes from the wall behind the kitchen serving line:
Merry Christmas to you all. Your love sustains me.
EMAIL me if you like, DONATE if you can, Read Today's Meditation if you have time, but whatever you do be sure to have a Merry Christmas !!