A huge house near 11th Avenue and G Street looks like an old hotel, or maybe a historic landmark. But it is a home for 40 men furloughed from prison who are making the transition to life on the outside.
A few blocks away is a huge warehouse, one of many in the downtown business district. More than 2,000 alcoholics sober up there every month.
From the outside, no one can tell that these buildings shelter people in serious trouble with nowhere to turn. Inside, there are stories of despair and hope, isolation and salvation. These are places of last resort, all run by Volunteers of America, one of the oldest and largest nonprofit organizations in the nation.
"We're the best-kept secret in town," joked Bob Ransweiler, director of the Volunteers of America Southwestern Corp. "One of our biggest problems has been that we get so busy building programs that no one knows who we are."
That's the way VOA prefers to operate--with a low profile, in a low-key manner, following a 90-year tradition of service to those in need.
VOA was started by the son of the founders of the Salvation Army, before the turn of the century. California VOA programs began around 1917. Though the Salvation Army and VOA often serve the same clientele, there are differences in their philosophies and orientation, Ransweiler said.
"Volunteers of America is evangelical in its outreach," he said. "Those in the Salvation Army are Salvationists."
VOA supports belief in a spiritual being and encourages its clients to practice the faith of their choice, but there are no religious requirements and clients are not expected to listen to sermons or attend religious meetings. Bibles and prayer cards are placed in each room of the residential programs, and spiritual slogans are the favored artwork in most facilities, but that's as far as the religious emphasis goes.
Since VOA emphasizes human service rather than religion, it is eligible to receive government funding. Ransweiler takes pride in the fact that the local programs were all established at the request of government and social service agencies.
The San Diego chapter, incorporated in 1984, serves five Southern California counties. The nine programs operating in San Diego County served an estimated 27,000 alcoholics, ex-offenders, and homeless and mentally ill persons last year. The corporation's annual budget of $3.2 million comes from state and county grants and fees for services. Government funds are often matched by private donations.
The local organization celebrated the national VOA's 90th anniversary in March with a dinner in Balboa Park honoring its volunteers. The 100 or so volunteers contribute more than 1,500 hours of service a month.
"Volunteers are the backbone of nonprofit today. Without them we would be lost," Ransweiler said. "Naturally, we're always seeking new volunteers."
Sometimes the group doesn't have far to look to find new volunteers. Often, graduates of VOA's alcohol treatment center downtown return as volunteers or staff members.
Marian Moore, director of VOA's Sobriety House, is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for six years.
"I tried so many times to get sober and just couldn't," she said while leading a tour of the facility recently. "Then somebody brought me to Detox and that was my turning point."
Moore started her recovery process at the VOA's Inebriate Reception Center, the first step in the organization's "5 in 1 Plan to Sobriety." The only program of its kind in the county, the plan offers a full range of recovery services in one setting--that big anonymous warehouse.
Police from all over the county bring in an average of 80 individuals a day. The inebriates avoid going to jail by agreeing to cooperate with police and go to IRC instead.
Sleeping on Mats
They are allowed to spend four hours at IRC, sleeping on mats on the floor of a large, gymnasium-type room, drinking cups of "detox coffee," and talking with volunteers and staff members who know firsthand how difficult drying out can be.
"A lot of the people who we see are surprised to be in here," said Debby Lara-Toney, the director of the alcohol treatment program, whose parents were alcoholics. Those admitted to IRC come from every segment of society.
The staffers make every attempt to convince alcoholics that there are other ways to live. "If they are willing to make the commitment to changing their life style, we take them in our three-day dry-out program," Lara-Toney explained.
Formally called the Detoxification Unit, the program is on the other side of the same large room, just across a red dividing line. Participants are given a bed, a place to clean up, three meals a day, and the opportunity to rid their systems of alcohol with the encouragement and support of volunteers and staff.
"We give them a taste of what sobriety is all about," she said.
The next step is the seven-day recovery program, where full-time residents attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and educational and counseling groups.
Those who need additional support enter Sobriety House, where they may live anywhere from three to 18 months. Residents must find employment, attend AA meetings and participate in running the house, which occupies another section of the same warehouse.
A new family program offers support for alcoholics and their families on an outpatient basis.
A group of 75 to 100 alumni who gather at the center every Sunday to renew their commitment to sobriety and help recovering alcoholics. This participation is essential to the VOA philosophy and indicates why these programs--despite a lack of publicity--work and continue to receive funding, clients and volunteers.
"We show people they can do something with their lives," Lara-Toney said, summing up the purpose of VOA's comprehensive program and volunteer involvement.
"Actually, we are lucky to be what we are."