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Ventura County

More Students Training as Drug Counselors

Education: Interest is booming since changes in state law. Nearly all trainees are in recovery or have a relative with a dependency problem.

April 02, 2002|LISA LEFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oxnard College's Intervention and Recovery class is an eclectic group--from an elegantly dressed Ojai mother who has lost a daughter to heroin to ex-gang members from La Colonia and reformed meth dealers.

They are all studying to become certified drug and alcohol counselors through the addictive disorders program--one of the state's oldest college-based training grounds for chemical dependency professionals.

"You have everybody, all the way from 17- or 18-year-olds up to grandparents. You have your [recovering] alcoholics or drug addicts--the ones who got themselves together before they had to go to prison--and you have a lot of parolees in the room," said student Kris Giles, 33, of Newbury Park. "We are all on the same level."

Spurred by statewide efforts to raise standards for drug counselors and the passage of Proposition 36, which mandated treatment over jail time for certain low-level drug offenders, enrollment in this and similar programs at 26 other community colleges has exploded. This semester, Oxnard's program has more than 400 students, compared with 275 a year ago.

Nearly all the students are in recovery or have a family member with a drug or alcohol problem, said William Shilley, 73, a former priest turned family therapist who founded the program in 1981. To become certified, students must complete 720 hours--about two years of course work--and 250 hours of field experience.

For most of the students, enrolling in an academic program with a fixed schedule is a huge step. Many have histories that include childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, prostitution or addiction. They have limited education and struggle with financial difficulties.

"They are all walking miracles because they have been through an awful lot and they have done one of the most difficult things to do in life, which is change their lifestyle," Shilley said.

Many program alumni now hold leadership positions at alcohol and drug rehab facilities in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties.

Shilley teaches most of the 19 courses in the Oxnard College program's curriculum. As a founding member of the California Assn. for Alcohol/Drug Educators, he also travels around the state setting up continuing education courses, lobbying lawmakers and advising drug and alcohol treatment programs.

"Bill is the professional in the state," said association President Angela Stocker, director of the College of San Mateo's addictive disorders program. "He has done more to raise the standards for counselors than any one person."

Shilley's students see him as a mentor and compassionate father figure.

"He looks for the best in everyone and makes them feel like he respects them and cares personally about them," said Deborah Goldberg of Westlake Village, who with her husband, Leonard, were Shilley students a decade ago when their daughter was using drugs.

With Shilley's help, the Goldbergs established Visions for Recovery, a nonprofit group that raises money for alcohol and drug prevention programs.

Shilley's students say they attend the program as a way to make up for the years and relationships they lost to their addictions.

"It blows me away that I have so much knowledge from my personal research that I can help someone else," said Elizabeth Humphrey, 38, who has been sober for three years and enrolled in the program last fall. "The best counselors are people in recovery because we already know the games, we know the manipulation, and we know the conning. We can't be fooled."

Shilley estimates that about half his students end up completing the program. Some decide that drug counseling does not pay enough and pursue other careers. Others leave when they have a relapse.

A few find that their pasts catch up with them. This semester, for example, two students dropped out because they were sent to jail.

But many find the strength to continue. One is the mother of a former pupil who couldn't get off heroin. The Ojai woman said she has not seen her 23-year-old daughter since November and doesn't know where she is, but thinks using her child's old textbooks and sitting in the same classroom she once did gives her hope.

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