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Role Models for Recovery : Acton: VISTA program finds experience counts as it recruits former addicts to assist those in need of help at treatment center.


ACTON — One is a former teacher who used to preach against drugs by day and smoke crack cocaine at night.

Another is a fifth-grade dropout who concealed his alcoholism while driving cross-country moving vans. At 49, he still could not read.

Yet another neglected her marriage and her daughter while selling drugs to support her own habit.

Today, these three people are clean and sober--and working to help others to reach the same plateau through an unusual program funded by AmeriCorps*VISTA, commonly known as the domestic Peace Corps.

Residents at the Acton Rehabilitation Center, a county facility where this VISTA program is based, say these volunteers speak with authority that can come only from experience.

"They could relate to exactly what I had gone through," says Patricia Sheehy, 36, of Westchester, who checked in last June to kick a heroin habit. "It wasn't just somebody who had read about it in a book."

While it's clear now that these volunteers' first-hand experience with addiction has turned out to be one of their greatest assets, Richard Rioux, executive director of the center, says the program generated skepticism in 1990 when he applied for a VISTA grant.

At that time, most participants in VISTA were recent college graduates, retirees and community activists who were sent to low-income areas to combat hunger, poverty and domestic violence.

Rioux instead wanted to recruit volunteers who had spotty employment records and had, in some cases, done time in jail.

Luckily, VISTA officials decided to give it a try.

"Within a very short time, it was clear that this was a phenomenal program," Rioux says. "I never dreamed these people would have as much impact as they have had."

His use of recovering addicts at a treatment center appears to be the only VISTA program of its kind in the West, says Don Stewart, a spokesman for the Corp. for National Service, the umbrella agency that oversees VISTA.

The volunteers not only counsel the residents of the center, but are also role models.

Consider David E. Lowe. Before he hit bottom and sought help at a homeless shelter in 1990, Lowe, now 37, says he was a "trash-can addict" who would consume "anything that would alter my state of being," including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and PCP.

"I pretty much ran the gamut from drug dealer to drug abuser to thief, liar, cheat and con-man--whatever it took to support my habit," he recalls.

Lowe became a VISTA volunteer at Acton two years ago. He is also studying at Mission College in Sylmar to become certified in substance abuse counseling.

"A lot of times we come to recovery thinking that no one has hurt like we've hurt," Lowe says. "One of the things I try to get across is that you're not alone."

Lowe and four other VISTA volunteers live at the Acton center, while a sixth stays at its nearby sister facility, Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center. Each receives a $690 a month stipend, of which $100 goes to the county for room and board.


The program has not always run smoothly. Rioux says a few of his early recruits did not work out well and were asked to leave. Some had suffered relapses in their drug or alcohol problems.

And earlier this year, a former resident of the Acton center filed a lawsuit, alleging that a VISTA worker had sexually assaulted her. The case is still in the courts, but county officials have branded the suit unfounded. The VISTA volunteer remains in the program, assigned to the Warm Springs center.

Rioux says such problems are rare, however, and he hails the current VISTA workers as his best. He says dozens of other drug and alcohol treatment centers have asked him how to set up similar programs.

Rioux "certainly has done a wonderful job," says Joan Crawford, who supervises VISTA programs in Southern California.

She says his program has provided a model for other agencies to follow. "The idea is out there, and it is being circulated," Crawford says.

Unlike the poor inner-city neighborhoods where many VISTA programs operate, the Acton Rehabilitation Center is in a scenic, relatively affluent valley area just south of Palmdale. With its wooden cabins, large grassy areas and dirt roads, the recovery center resembles a summer camp for adults.

It houses about 300 people who have entered voluntarily for treatment that generally lasts 90 days. About a third of the people come to the center because they have been ordered by a judge to get treatment or serve jail time. When these residents leave the grounds without permission or are evicted for breaking the rules, court officials are notified.

The 35-acre site was developed in the 1930s for the federal Civilian Conservation Corps. Later, the camp housed county tuberculosis patients.

In the 1950s, Rioux says, the remote center became a "drunk farm," providing temporary housing for alcoholic vagrants. In the early 1960s, however, the county added treatment, including Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

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