Strict Program Means Salvation for Addicts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grey Holden was an upper middle-class kid from Garden Grove, a blond, cocky freshman at Golden West College when he first tried drinking and drugs.

Through his 20s, during five years working at Knott's Berry Farm and elsewhere, he had fun drinking, doing cocaine.

"I was just a kid from the suburbs who had everything he ever wanted handed to him on a silver platter," he said.

In 1991, he tried methamphetamine. It gave him more energy than cocaine. He lost weight, but he could go day and night on his motorcycles, or in his favorite Jeep pickup. He rolled into the high life of an Orange County drug dealer and user.

"I had it all: fast cars, boats, $500 in my wallet every night," said Holden, 35. "I also carried a gun 24 hours a day. Many nights I wished I was dead."

After a string of arrests, a judge in Municipal Court in Westminster told Holden he had a choice--prison for three years, or 90 days in jail and six months at the Salvation Army.

"I didn't want to go to the Salvation Army. I thought it was a soup kitchen for a bunch of bums and winos," Holden said.

But not even his high-priced lawyers could get him a better deal. Now, he thanks God they didn't. Last week, the former suburban drug dealer wept as he graduated with 15 other addicts and alcoholics from the six-month adult rehabilitation program run by the Salvation Army in an industrial corner of Anaheim. Operated on principles that are more than a century old, the Army's Orange County rehabilitation center, the largest in the nation, combines Bible-thumping daily devotionals with exhaustive counseling, work therapy and a few modern touches--such as a $45,000 drug-testing machine--to try to help 140 men at a time straighten out extremely troubled lives.

"We only do one thing here--work with people whose lives are unmanageable, and who have told us they need help. This is a specialized ministry that reaches out to men who because of addiction have lost everything," said Maj. Oliver Stenvick, who administers the program with his wife, Mrs. Maj. Geretta Stenvick.

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Some of the men who graduated last week slept next to freeways in the mud or collapsed in homeless shelters last October to get heroin or fortified wine out of their systems. You must test clean of drugs or alcohol to gain admission to the rehab center, which charges nothing.

"I detoxed at my grandmother's house," Holden said, then gave the frail 82-year-old woman next to him dressed in pink a gigantic bear hug.

"I just prayed and prayed every night he was in here," Helen Van Buren said.

"We got him back," said his mother, Judy Holden. "We thought we had lost him for good."

A diverse group of graduates assembled on the platform last week. One was a former Los Angeles social worker, and another had just regained his wife and children. Black, white, Latino, aged 26 to 60, all had lost a great deal before they came to the center, but they had triumphed through a rigorous half year.

"They get up at 6 a.m., and we keep them busy until 10 or 11 at night," Stenvick said. For 30 days, the men are not allowed to leave the sprawling five-acre campus, which in addition to a chapel and residence, complete with bowling alley and swimming pool, has a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, a car lot and offices.

From the start, the men attend five Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week, in addition to counseling sessions ranging from grief and anger therapy to smoking cessation and parenting techniques.

Each day, after morning prayer and breakfast, the men work for eight hours at the warehouse next door, processing donated clothing and furniture for sale. The proceeds of the sales fund the program. None of the men interviewed said they had a problem doing the work, for which they receive $15 a week.

"It's very fair," said Holden, who although still slim, gained 30 pounds in six months. "You get three meals a day, a place to live, and all these classes for six months."

Maj. Stenvick said, "They need the discipline, and they need the dignity. . . . This is real life. You get up, you take a shower, you go to work."

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The work is also tied into self-esteem and accomplishment. Most men work hard to get promoted out of sorting and hanging clothing--"women's work," said one man dismissively--into areas they consider more manly, such as repairing appliances. With each promotion, they gain privacy, moving from a five-man bedroom all the way to a single room.

Holden's roughest point came two months into the program, when he caught pneumonia. He had just received a promotion out of the warehouse to janitor, and had moved into a four-man room. But after he was hospitalized for seven days, his bed was reassigned. Holden was crushed.

"I thought they were being so unfair to me," he said with a rueful laugh.

When he regained his health, he was allowed back into the program and returned to sorting clothing. But warehouse supervisor Yvonne Jones gave him a break.

"After exactly seven and a half minutes--I know because I counted--she transferred me," he said.

In 1996, 581 men came through the doors of the rehab center. There were 140,813 meals served, and 46,338 nights of lodging provided, on a budget of about $10 million, 95% of it from sales of donated goods. The Army hopes to open a rehab center for women on an empty field it owns next to the men's center, but needs additional funds to build. The program does not discriminate, but Jewish or Muslim believers would probably not agree with the Christian emphasis.

"We welcome anyone, but we will not change our program." Stenvick said.

Last Wednesday, the religious aspect was fully evident, as each man offered thanks and praise, and recounted his struggles.

The oldest, a 60-year-old former Los Angeles social worker, said he was "amused" by some of the younger men's accounts of their difficult decision to enter the program.

"For me it was start sleeping under a bridge, or come here," said the man, gesturing to the warm wood walls, the crowd in front of him, and the modern but homey dining and recreation facilities.

"This was the easiest choice I ever had to make," he said to a roar of laughter.

Holden was the last to speak.

"This place gave me back my life," he said. "If it weren't for God and the Salvation Army, I would be in prison or dead. If I did it, anyone can."

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All the men know the toughest part lies ahead.

Many will stay an optional seventh month while they seek full-time jobs. Holden started his new job the day after graduation. He's behind the wheel again, but not headed for the fast lane any time soon--he's driving a donations truck for the Salvation Army.

"It's great. I never had it so good," he said. "I can do things sober, and it's pretty neat."

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