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Ready for recovery: Sober Corps matches recovering alcoholics with mentors to help them stay on track

Sober Corps programMike was sober for 14 years.

Then, at age 14, he took his first drink.

And he drank until it defined him. First he called himself a drinker. Years later, when he was willing to admit it, he began using a new word: alcoholic.

Mike (who asked that his last name not be printed) tried to quit for four decades. And lost count of his failures. One day in late 2007 Mike’s doctor told him if he quit he would recover.

If he kept drinking, he would die.

One morning the next January, Mike woke up sick as usual. But instead of stretching his hand toward the bottle he reached for something else: sobriety.

He entered a Salvation Army halfway house but worried about finding support when he left in a few months. Then he heard about Sober Corps.

Six months later and Mike, 57, is at the Panera Bread on East Hennepin on a Friday in December, sitting across from Tom Regnier, his 63-year-old Sober Corps mentor.

They meet regularly for lunch. Sometimes they talk about Mike’s search for a second job. Sometimes about Mike’s progress in rebuilding his life. Sometimes just about small things, catching each other up on their lives.

The relationship helps keep Mike sober. Because Tom believes in him, he helps Mike grow into the sometimes too-large shoes of his new life. Because Tom — who has been sober for over three decades — gets it. It’s the camaraderie, Mike said. The fellowship. Knowing that someone’s there for you.

Today Mike and Tom talk about Jan. 21, Mike’s upcoming first anniversary of sobriety, which leads them to sharing the moments when they realized they were ready for recovery.

“It’s kind of like the legend of Sisyphus,” Tom says. “That’s what being an alcoholic is. You’re pushing the boulder up the hill all the time and there’s no energy for anything else, you can’t stop, you can’t turn, you can’t do anything.

“When you say you give up, you step aside and let the boulder run down the hill. To hell with it. And all of a sudden you have a new life, a new world.”

Building reality from promise

Fred Myers, he gets it, too.

The Sober Corps founder is in his late 70s, spry, and sober since 1971. For decades he’s worked to give opportunities to the kind of person he used to be, nearly there but needing a little more, support consistent and long enough to elevate a person above the worst of their daily demons.

He’s amiable and a little absent-minded, but get him talking about Sober Corps and his avuncular eyes flash and he squares his shoulders and his voice takes on fire and resonance, as if he’s standing at a pulpit and preaching salvation.

He works from Sober Corps’ office in the near-empty basement of the Gethsemane Episcopal Church on the east end of downtown, along with his sole employee, Stephanie Malon-Rufi. Right now the basement speaks more to promise than to reality. The heat doesn’t always work and there are donated computers in boxes in the floor and there’s a gym, dark and vacant and ready for activity.

To Fred, these are details easily solved. That’s where Stephanie, who has worked with him in the past, comes in, while he focuses on the big picture: Building Sober Corps into something much larger than this basement.

“You can replicate this thing just about anywhere as long as you had the desire and the ability to raise enough money to do it right,” he said.

A Sober Corps in St. Paul, in St. Cloud, dozens across the state, then the Midwest, then the country.

Fred dreams big. He’s done this before.

A quarter-century ago he launched the St. Paul-based Rebuild Resources, which helps recovering addicts find work. In 2004 he left and founded the American Academy Initiative, a think-tank focused on creating programs to help substance abusers early in their addiction, before homelessness and prison and anything else that might await them.

From the Academy came an idea for a grassroots, volunteer-dependent organization that ran a comprehensive program where recovering alcoholics find housing, learn job skills, connect with one another, and find support by working one-on-one with mentors. With a name to reflect those big dreams.

In November 2007, Sober Corps was born.

The heart of the vision

The Sober Corps vision relies on three things:

One: Statistics show that people who stay sober for one year have the best chances of remaining that way.

Two: The lack of recovery programs offering a full year of support.

Three: The absence of one-on-one mentoring for people looking for help not only with addiction, but related issues, like searching for work or housing.

The third, in particular, is the heart of Sober Corps.

Sober Corps trains mentors and matches them with mentees. Eligible mentees have four months’ sobriety and are active in Alcoholics Anonymous. Mentors (like Tom) meet regularly with mentees (like Mike) and help as they can. Sober Corps eventually plans to offer mentees classes on finances, finding work and housing, and other things.

The organization partners with Gethsemane because Fred wanted space in a central, accessible location, and found support from Gethsemane. Sober Corps isn’t connected to a specific religion, Fred said, because its philosophy is much broader.

“It’s about hope and direction,” Fred said. “These people don’t have anybody in their corner … We’re turning that around. We’re saying, ‘You have a lot of value, and we’re going to help you achieve that.'”

One year, then the future

At Panera on that Friday in December, Mike nods at Tom’s Sisyphus reference.

“I always thought I was the king, that I could do anything,” Mike says. “Now I know I can’t do it by myself. You just have to want to do better. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

“Life has gotten so much better. I feel like a kid now. I can do the things I want to do. I’m seeing the things I missed. You miss too much when you’re drunk. You miss a lot.

“But if you give in and make a commitment, you can have a new life.”

Mike and Tom have met now for five months. Sober Corps asks them to continue until Mike’s one-year anniversary of sobriety.

Past that, it’s up to them.

“You’re my pal, you’re my best friend now,” Mike joked as he sipped from his soda.

“I don’t know about that,” Tom said, though as he said it he smiled and Mike laughed as he bit into his sandwich.

About Sober Corps

Sober Corps is a nonprofit dedicated to helping recovering alcoholics achieve one year of sobriety through one-on-one mentoring, classes, work and housing opportunities, and more.

source: : Downtown Journal : stories

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