Home Cure for Addicts : Pacoima Couple With Little Experience and Fewer Resources Offer Refuge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Pacoima, the drug addicts and street people chase their demons down Van Nuys Boulevard, past the old storefront churches, the liquor stores, the San Fernando Gardens housing project.

And for those who tire of chasing the next drink or the next high, there is an unlikely refuge: A mom-and-pop social service agency run by a 55-year-old former housewife and her husband, a 61-year-old auto worker.

The Pledger Counseling Center offers counseling and temporary shelter for recovering drug and alcohol abusers, many of them referred by parole agents and probation officers. It is a three-room storefront operation run and funded by Clara Pledger and her husband, James.

Five years ago, Clara Pledger was a homemaker who knew little about drugs--except that cocaine, PCP and heroin had devastated many families in her predominantly Latino and black neighborhood. She decided that she would open her own drug rehabilitation center.

"From Day 1, this was her goal and she pursued it through," said Henry Simmons, who studied with Pledger in Mission College's Chemical Dependency Studies program and who now volunteers as a group counselor twice a week.

Pledger, a minister's daughter with deep roots in Pacoima's black community, studied chemical dependency counseling for three years. In 1989, with the help of her faculty adviser, a $3,000 inheritance and her initially dubious husband, she opened the center on Van Nuys Boulevard near Bradley Avenue. She found herself on the front lines of a desperate battlefield.

The drug problem was "all around the neighborhood," she said in an interview in her cramped office, a Bible on her desk. "And this is a neighborhood where people can't pay what they charge at the big counseling programs. So I opened up, and if they needed me they came in. I sat here all day even if nobody came. I was determined to get them off the street."

Bayo Adefope, 38, came off the street three months ago to fight a six-year crack cocaine habit. Pledger welcomed him.

"I'm impressed someone would have that attitude," said Adefope, a well-spoken, restless immigrant from Nigeria. "They let me come in, they loaned me money. . . . Basically, nobody gives a damn about addicts, especially crack-heads."

The Pledgers' work is not fancy or miraculous. Their down-to-earth benevolence is nonetheless admired by community leaders and officials in the Los Angeles County Probation Department's Regimented Inmate Diversion (RID) program, a boot-camp-style program for drug offenders. Some RID graduates receive follow-up counseling from the Probation Deparment at the Pledger Center, whose volunteer staff of Pledger family relatives and friends fluctuates in size.

"It's not the ideal situation yet, because it's new and they don't have the level of expertise for a really well-run center," RID counselor Ron Mossler said.

Nevertheless, he said: "They are giving people a home base they can check in and out of. People who don't have community, family, a sense of self, which is why they become abusers. They need to build up a sense of self, and that's what the Pledgers do best."

Most of the budget--$12,000 last year--comes from the salary of Pledger's husband of 41 years, a metal finisher who has worked 22 years at the General Motors plant in Van Nuys. There are occasional donations from friends.

Clients are asked to pay something if they can. Many can't. The center does not receive government or church money and does not have a religious orientation, though Clara Pledger clearly does.

"It's my ministry," she said. "It's my calling. If they need religion, I give it to them. I don't force it on them."

James Crossen, Pledger's faculty adviser at Mission College, offered rehabilitation sessions for recovering users at the center last year in an innovative three-credit course under the auspices of the college. He said street-level programs are scarce because of government spending constraints.

"You don't have to be a sociologist to know that services are lacking in minority communities," he said.

A back room at the center has been converted into a small sleeping area with military cots for clients who need a place to stay. Pledger mixes maternal concern with stern ground rules.

"This is not a flophouse," she said. "You don't go out and get drunk. You don't flop here all day long. You go out and look for work."

For example, Adefope stayed cold turkey at the center for 37 days. But then he confessed to Pledger that he had smoked cocaine again. He left.

"He knew the rules," she said.

"I'm still struggling with it," said Adefope, who continues to attend counseling sessions. He said the center "did benefit me. If my head would just let me rest."

On Tuesday evening, Pledger greeted Adefope and seven other clients--five men and two women--gathered for group counseling with Simmons, himself a former cocaine addict. Emilio, a muscular former cocaine addict with a cigarette tucked behind his ear, announced that he had just been released from prison and was looking for support.

"This here helps," he said. "You get around somebody, they talk to you, they encourage you. I just got home Friday. I didn't do any drugs for 21 months in prison or since I got out. I got a good start."

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