The following was written by former, and I’m now happy to say current, PoP contributor Karen Frantz.
If you happened to stroll down the 1300 block of Harvard Street, you probably wouldn’t think much of two connected row houses halfway down the block that make up the Columbia Heights location for Second Genesis. Painted blue with a vegetable and herb garden planted in a clean and manicured front yard and a yellow sun logo donning the entrance’s transom, the buildings look like they house some hip non-profit, the kind of which you can find all over the D.C. area. And if that was your conclusion you’d in fact be right: Second Genesis is a non-profit, only it’s doesn’t do the kind of work you might expect. It’s a residential facility for low-income individuals undergoing rehabilitation for addiction to drugs and alcohol.
I bring this up the fact that this might surprise you not because it should or shouldn’t, but because until recently Second Genesis might have actually preferred that it did. In fact, as Second Genesis’ development and digital media coordinator, Bianca Poll, told me when I visited the facility last week, though most people are supportive of rehabilitation programs in general, many feel differently when the program is close to where they live—the not-in-my-backyard mentality. And for that reason, Second Genesis has before been wary of being too open, too loud—but no longer. Bianca told me she’s eager to change the NIMBY mindset that some in the area may have about drug rehabilitation programs like Second Genesis’, and invited me to tour the facility and learn more about the work of the non-profit.
Second Genesis was founded in 1969 as part of the Alexandria Mental Health Clinic, and since has expanded to five centers in D.C. and Maryland. Approximately 1200 clients a year are served by Second Genesis through outpatient and residential treatment centers—including the approximately 50 clients able to be served by the residential facility in Columbia Heights. Staff includes physicians, psychologists, addiction counselors, experienced teachers, and administrative staff. It’s the oldest provider of therapeutic community services to fight addiction in the mid-Atlantic region, and its principles include “facilitating individual change and positive growth” in order to break the cycle of addiction. Although different centers are structured in different ways—for example, some house men, some house women, some house women and children—all are therapeutic communities that rely on treatment stages in which clients gain increased levels of personal and social responsibility.
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Residents of the Second Genesis Columbia Heights location enter the program in different ways. Some choose to enter the program because they realize they have a problem. Some enter the program because government agencies contract to send them there. For some, Second Genesis is their only alternative to doing time, and drug use may not be their only crime. All are over eighteen. All are men. None may have a complicating condition such as a psychiatric disorder or mental disability, and none may be exhibiting acts of violence. But all are there to kick their addiction and, if they’re successful, become productive members of society.
Whether they can do that, of course, is ultimately up to them. And Second Genesis is designed in such a way that that point is driven home in a multitude of ways: much of the way the program is run is completely up to those within it. Clients essentially run the facility themselves with guidance from the staff (many of whom are former addicts themselves), and as they progress through the three stages of the program (assessment and orientation, stabilization and rehabilitation, and re-entry and employment), they graduate into increasing levels of responsibility, from cleaning and cooking to managing day-to-day operations and devising the week’s schedule. And as they do so, they learn positive social skills and acquire orderly functioning—both things of which they may have never had in their life and of which are essential in being able to develop good habits that will keep them straight when they re-enter society.
Clients are not only responsible for their own progress, but partially responsible for the progress of their peers in the program. One client who took me on a tour of the facility explained to me that collectively everyone in Second Genesis is referred to as a family and individuals are referred to as brother. Everyone looks out for each other and offers support when someone may seem withdrawn, or provides some tough love when someone becomes angry or antagonistic. For example, if someone has acted out, the group will sit down and talk out their problems and deliver what the client I spoke with referred to as “lifesaving information.” He explained that often the message is that you’re doing this to help yourself and if you’re messing up you have only yourself to blame. Sometimes clients who’ve acted out are sent by his peers to an area behind the reception desk where a mirror dons the wall—this is where you can see what the problem is, the client told me: you.
This support system works because the clients are constantly getting reinforcement, both by receiving it and by giving it, a cycle that is especially effective. Another advantage is that those who have been in the program longer are an especially important source of help for those who have just entered, as they can both sympathize with what the newcomers are going through and also serve as an example of what one can achieve if they stick with it.
The clients’ day can vary, but is very structured. It can involve clinical groups where clients learn how to address problems in their life; community meetings where clients talk house and review goals, procedures and functioning of the program; vocational and educational activities that include training in work, communication, and interpersonal skills; and community and clinical management activities where clients may be awarded privileges or may be disciplined depending on their recent behavior.
All this is part of the therapeutic community model mentioned previously and which Second Genesis is built upon—a model that has been remarkably successful. In fact, Second Genesis has an astonishingly high success rate (measured in terms of completion of the program): 68%, compared with 38% of rehabilitation programs nationally. Second Genesis is indeed seen as a model program not only in the United States but across the world, and has offered training for other programs starting up as far away as Nigeria, Brazil, and Afghanistan.
I asked Bianca what she thought helped account for Second Genesis’ success, and she said in part it was because the staff is often made up of graduates of the program or other rehabilitation centers. Not only had they experienced what the clients were going through and could serve as an example of what one can accomplish (and thus were almost like an extended aspect of the therapeutic model), but they were networked in the outside community and thus could help clients post graduation with things like finding housing in areas where it’s easier to avoid triggers of old habits.
Unfortunately, however, Bianca also told me that those success rates have been falling some. Because the Columbia Heights facility now accepts clients with government contracts, it must shorten the length of the clients’ stay to about three months, as opposed to the two years that is really seen as optimal. There are other drawbacks to accepting government contracts: clients are required to on the most part stay on Second Genesis property. Thus, although clients used to be able to do things like play basketball at a community court or organize a block party, those activities have now been cut. And, for the Columbia Heights facility where there is limited space due to the urban location, this is a particular concern when it comes to one of Second Genesis’ new programs, a program which Bianca was especially excited about: Recovery through Gardening, Exercise and Nutrition (ReGEN).
Second Genesis is the first therapeutic community in the D.C. area to focus on such efforts as part of recovery—and the aforementioned vegetable garden planted in raised beds in the front yard is a major part of that effort. The clients manage the garden, and they also eat its yields (which include tomatoes, beets, lettuce, and other vegetables and herbs). And that’s not a small boon for the healthy recovery of Second Genesis clients—especially considering that Second Genesis is only allotted about a dollar a day for food per person. (Second Genesis does have some help from generous donors in the area, such as Au Bon Pain and Biophilia, which provide some food, supplies, and other services that help clients to eat healthy. But nutrition is still a major concern, and Bianca told me that some teenagers at an outpatient facility weren’t even able to properly identify some vegetables.) However, meeting the exercise aspect of the ReGEN program at the Columbia Heights facility can be difficult—and frustrating–because clients aren’t permitted to do something as simple as walk around the block.
My tour of Second Genesis was enlightening. Although I lived three blocks away from the Columbia Heights facility for two years and have been in the area for even longer, I never knew it was there. And I admit if I had it might have given me pause. But I think that wariness, that not-in-my-backyard feeling that Bianca referenced as a concern, comes more from unfamiliarity, from not having information, from not having seen something for ourselves–especially when it’s so foreign to the experience of our own lives. And that’s why I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit Second Genesis and see for myself what a positive community it is, how friendly the clients and staff are, and how commonplace aspects of it now seems to me.
In order for you to learn more about Second Genesis and the role nutrition can play in recovery, Second Genesis is holding a documentary film festival at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring this Thursday, June 10. The documentary Fresh will be shown, produced and directed by Ana Sofia Joanes and featuring Will Allen, recipient of MacArthur’s 2008 Genius Award, and Joel Salatin who many will remember as the sustainable farmer featured in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The short documentary Nora!, about Nora Pouillon who created the country’s first certified organic restaurant, will also be shown. A panel will follow the films, and Whole Foods is catering. Readers of Prince of Petworth can receive a special discount rate for the event. You can either buy tickets at the door or online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/112611 (make sure to put in “POP” as the discount code). A reception will be held at 6pm, the screening begins at 7pm.