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Addicts Read Their Way to Self-Esteem : Therapy: Illiteracy as a cause and effect of drug dependency is attacked at Acton Rehabilitation Center. Tutors are fellow substance abusers.


He spent four years at the University of Houston, playing wide receiver, majoring in psychology. But when Gary Sapp left the university to join the Houston Oilers in 1979, he could not even read a menu or write a check.

What he could do was play football with abandon, especially if he was high on cocaine, which he often was. Who needed to read or write when there were drugs and money and fame?

Today, as Sapp looks back on a helter-skelter past and a pro career that was clipped short by liquor and drugs, he realizes that his addiction was tied intrinsically to his illiteracy.

And so, to kick his habit and rebuild his life, he is learning, at the age of 36, to read.

Sapp is one of about 100 recovering drug addicts and alcoholics at the Acton Rehabilitation Center participating in an innovative year-old program, perhaps the only one of its kind in the country, which uses the simple act of reading as part of the treatment of chemical dependency.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 29, 1990 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Literacy program--A Sept. 3 article about a literacy program at the Acton Rehabilitation Center incorrectly reported that Gary Sapp, a resident at the center, had been unable to read after spending four years as a football player and student at the University of Houston. Academic officials and coaches at the university say Sapp was never a student or football player there. The article also incorrectly stated that Sapp had played on three National Football League teams.

Illiterate addicts are taught to read by fellow substance abusers who have been trained as tutors. The result: The self-esteem of both rises and their chances of completing the rehabilitation center's 90-day recovery program increase dramatically.

Illiteracy alone probably will not drive someone to drugs, experts say, but the inability to read can, to some extent, be a cause and an effect of substance abuse. Low self-worth, a loss of hope and slim chances of landing a good job--all byproducts of illiteracy--contribute to the desire to turn to drugs as an escape, experts say.

"Being illiterate played a big part in my addiction," Sapp said. He was so ashamed of himself, for example, that Sapp once wore an eye patch, feigning injury, to have others read for him.

After two months of treatment in Acton, Sapp reads at a seventh-grade level. "I like myself now," he said. "I'm tired of living in shadows."

Before entering the reading program, 55% of the center's clients completed the 90-day residency program, said Richard Rioux, director of special projects at the center. But for the program's students and tutors, he said, the completion rate is 80%.

The surge in completion rates has surprised counselors at the center, especially because the literacy program is so simple, both in philosophy and execution. Almost sheepishly, Rioux said, "Why didn't we think of it sooner?"

The need for literacy training was discovered by accident about two years ago after the center, which is run by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, tried to launch a job training program in Acton and at a sister facility in Warm Springs in the Antelope Valley.

Counselors soon realized that about a third of the residents could not fill out a job application or read classified ads, Rioux said. About half read at the seventh-grade level or below.

With a $60,000 federal grant, the center launched the literacy program in January, 1989, at the two centers. Tutors were trained in techniques used by Literacy Volunteers of America and now each person admitted to the residence center is tested in reading and math. Participation in the program, however, is voluntary.

The tutors and students work one-on-one in their rooms, in the library or even on the athletic fields at the rehabilitation center, a secluded village-like compound of cabins and bungalows located about 47 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Built as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930s, the 130-acre center is quiet and peaceful, surrounded by gently sloping hills.

So far, 265 students and 135 tutors have completed the literacy program, Rioux said. A third of the Acton center's 300 residents currently participate; another 200 do so in Warm Springs.

Residents are referred to the center by private and public social agencies, the courts, hospitals and halfway houses. Some, such as Sapp, admit themselves.

Experts in literacy said the program is unusual.

Reading programs are becoming increasingly common in prisons--where 76% of the inmates nationwide read below the sixth-grade level--and in shelters for the homeless, said Jody Koloski, executive director of the American Assn. for Adult and Continuing Education in Washington. Researchers have long recognized that illiteracy and the low self-esteem it engenders contributes to, but does not necessarily cause, a host of social ills, she said.

But combining reading with drug and alcohol rehabilitation is rare, if not unheard of.

"This is the only place I know where that's being done," said Juanita Stanley, executive director of California Literacy Inc.

"It is quite new," said Beverly Miller, a spokeswoman for Literacy Volunteers of America, based in Syracuse, N.Y.

It's too early to say how Acton residents will fare when they leave the program. Recovering addicts often slide back into abuse before they finally come clean, Rioux said. "We've had people in here with 17 or 18 programs behind them," he said.

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