Counselor Don Skekel, top right, meets with a group of guys at the Phoenix House in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Counselor Don Skekel, top right, meets with a group of guys at the Phoenix House in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Tuesday November 13, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Around 5 p.m. every Monday the tenants of the Phoenix House on Western Avenue sit down for a community dinner.

They break bread, share stories and listen to one another. It's just a single example of the type of support and camaraderie shown by a group of men dedicated to an important goal -- being freed from the grip of alcohol and drugs.

The Phoenix House in Brattleboro is part of a non-profit drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization with 150 programs in 10 states and hosts a Recovery in an Independent, Sober Environment (RISE) program. It is a transitional live-in program designed to treat victims of substance abuse for anywhere from three months to two years. There are four Vermont locations -- two in Brattleboro (the one for men and a separate one for women), one in Bellows Falls and one in Burlington with a total of 80 beds in the state.

Regional Director James Henzel said each house is a peer-led community that is self-governed to an extent, with a house chairman, treasurer and other positions. Tenants take part in a life skills group and ready themselves for the outside world while getting healthier.

"It's a working house, so the expectation is for them to work," Henzel said. "We have a great connection. I've been here 13 years and it's always been sort of a social program.

"We encourage a lot of support from the senior residents," he continued.

The program for women had no comment for the Reformer.

Henzel said most residents are in their late 30s to early 40s but some are more than 60 years old. He said the house doesn't take in many men under the age of 21 because, as he put it, "there is a different kind of need."

There are 28 beds at the Western Avenue location and tenants say everyone under the roof provides vital support on the road to recovery.

"It's a good learning experience. It's definitely helped me learn how to deal with people, deal with different people and people in different kinds of situations," said Chris Norton, 29. Born in Brattleboro and a resident of West Dover, he arrived at the facility at the suggestion of his parole officer about three months ago for help with alcohol problems.

"It was this or jail," he said. "If I was in jail, I wouldn't be getting treatment. ... It's grounded me."

Richie Brown, of Rutland, is what is known as a chronic relapser. He got to the Western Avenue house after one of his stints at the Brattleboro Retreat.

"If I didn't come here, I would've had to go back to Rutland and I wouldn't have been able to stay clean. So really, this place is saving my life right now," said Brown, who is battling addiction to heroin and cocaine. "We're a pretty tight community and just that, in and of itself, is extremely helpful with substance abuse and recovery because you're not by yourself. If somebody relapses here, we know it -- we can see the signs."

Henzel said the program takes a clinical approach with its tenants and sets up goals and treatment plans for them. Those seeking help are also encouraged to talk with counselors.

Chris Sanville, 35, of Newport, has been in Brattleboro for almost one year and will be off probation on Thanksgiving. He said the RISE program is much more helpful than others because it doesn't kick you out after 30 days. A recovering drug addict, he said the support is great.

"This is a good house. Everybody works, everybody helps each other out," he said. "I wasn't sure about it and it's just far above any other program. ... It's a family."

Sanville said he is in charge of the chore list at the house and makes sure everyone does what they're supposed to.

Nick Johnson said he got set up with Intensive Out Patient programming for drug and alcohol abuse when he arrived a month ago. A native of Cabot, he got arrested in New Hampshire on June 15 but his public defender worked out a deal to have him sent to Brattleboro so he could stay in Vermont. He is awaiting trial.

"I think this program is great. It's been more beneficial to me than anything I've ever done in my life," said Johnson, 30. "I feel like this place is kind of like a garage or something. You come here and you're a busted-up old car and you get fixed up and ready for the showroom.

"This program has really helped me jump-start my life," he added.

Johnson said if he had been forced into jail he never would have received the treatment or structure he needs to battle his demons.

The facility in Bellows Falls has a grant from the Veterans Health Administration to take military veterans.

Dan Guarino, a former Marine who has served in Iraq, sought help with his substance abuse problems from the Bellows Falls location. He said there is a liaison for military veterans.

"It's tough to open up. I'm not going to open up to people I don't trust," Guarino said, adding that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "I'm seeing reality again. I'm slowly getting my life together. ... I probably wouldn't be alive right now (if it wasn't for Phoenix House)."

Henzel said Phoenix House has won a contract for two more facilities -- one he said is likely to be developed in Barre in the spring. The other is slated for St. Albans, though there is no timeframe for its construction.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.