52 acres of hope: ARC gives officials glimpse into OLBH future

Henry Culvyhouse, The Daily Independent, Ashland, Ky.
·13 min read

Apr. 24—SPRINGFIELD — John Cooper was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

The son of a county attorney, and the grandson of a Kentucky Supreme Court Justice, Cooper had everything he needed and almost everything he wanted, he tells the crowd polishing off tacos and rice in a conference room.

Despite a stellar upbringing, Cooper said he still "had that hole in my soul." He never felt good enough, he never fit in.

"I was insecure, I felt less than because I never felt I like measured up," Cooper said. "I still feel like that sometimes."

But when Cooper got a hold of his daddy's Maker's Mark, he had arrived. All those icky feelings went away — he was gregarious, he felt peace, ease and comfort.

He was 12 years old. Hair wasn't even growing on his chin.

From there, Cooper said he got into a "a lot of shenanigans" throughout his teenage years. At 16, he transitioned to prescription pills, after his mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. Cooper said he remembered belly-crawling across the bedroom floor to snatch up her Percocets.

Despite it all, Cooper found himself at the University of Kentucky in 1999. After his freshman year, he hit the needle. Then his mother died — that's when Cooper said he "went nuts."

Even with all he had been through and his education, he still graduated with a bachelor's in spite of his drug use

By 2003, Cooper found himself in rehab, at a Hazelden facility, one of the best and most expensive drug rehabs in the country. Cooper got high on the plane ride back.

That started a 10-year cycle in the revolving door, oscillating between drugs/alcohol and rehab. Cooper said he eventually found a woman, married and had a child.

"Two addicts can't make each other well," Cooper said.

Then in 2019, Cooper found himself in a sling and was court-ordered to Addiction Recovery Center. This time, things were a little different, according to Cooper.

"I immediately felt the love here and the devotion to Jesus Christ," Cooper said. "This place has changed my life. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired."

On Thursday, Cooper stood before members of the Russell City Council, State Rep. Danny Bentley and State Sen. Robin Webb, among others. He is dressed in khakis and a button-up — he has life in his eyes. He looks healthy, he looks happy.

He has hope.

Next-door neighbors

Cooper is inside the conference room of an old library on the former campus of St. Catharine College. Having been decommissioned in 2016, the campus had sat empty until six months ago. Next door is a nunnery.

Marlene Kasama, an associate with the Sisters of Dominican Peace, said the sisters were concerned about who would end up occupying the site.

"There's nothing we could do about who would be our neighbor, but we didn't want an organization coming who went against our values," Kasama said. "When we heard that ARC was coming here, we were excited, because not only were they faith-based like us, but they are also about helping others."

That's right — there's a drug rehab, filled with dope fiends, tweakers, smoke hounds, boozers, junkies and more sitting next to a retirement home for nuns. And guess what? Apparently it's working quite well, according to Kasama.

"When they (ARC) first started looking into it, they reached out to us and asked how they could be good neighbors," she said. "We have 49 nuns and 40 nuns in the infirmary, and we haven't had any problems."

St. Catharine's campus — now the home to ARC's Crown, a male-only treatment facility — is considered its own town according to the U.S Postal service and consequently has a small office at the nunnery. So not only are these drug addicts and alcoholics next-door neighbors, they're coming over to pick up their mail.

"They are very respectful and nice," Kasama said. "The sisters feel very safe here. In fact, some of our more active sisters will walk around the campus here at 5:30 in the morning and they haven't had a problem."

John Graves, the magistrate of this side of Washington County, said when ARC asked to put down its tent stakes in this part of the Bluegrass, some local residents had their concerns as well.

Graves, like Kasama, had ties to St. Catharine. His mother had worked there, he had graduated from there with a criminal justice degree. Those early concerns principally revolved around "what type of people were coming here," Graves said.

"A lot of the concerns early on were about who was coming here and where they were coming from," Graves said. "I had those same questions myself. What I found was ARC had an open-door policy and have been completely transparent with what is happening here."

Especially after Graves said another rehab had opened in the county and residents saw some problems.

These aren't just addicts — just some felons, throwaway people we advert our eyes from when they're begging for change outside a restaurant you're entering for an after-church brunch.

They're fathers, they're sons, they're brothers, they're uncles, they're humans.

They're not bad people getting good; they're sick people getting well.

From broken to whole

See, officials didn't visit this campus three hours from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky on a lark. In Greenup County, like the nuns and the magistrate, have a dilemma on their hands — a former Catholic-owned community institution has shuttered and something will fill the void.

And like in Washington County, that void might be a drug rehab.

Founder and CEO Tim Robinson, of ARC, said the prospect of buying Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital is still in the elementary stages — hard figures aren't pinned down. A physical plan needs to be drawn up to figure out the bed space capacity.

Over in Springfield, bed capacity will be more than 700, with 300 on staff when the operation is fully running, according to Robinson. If state code and the fire marshal clear the old OLBH facility for it, Robinson said it could roughly be the same number in Russell. Robinson could safely say there would be 300-350 clients at the facility, because that's what OLBH could house. Whether it will welcome in males, females or both is to be determined.

"Because there's less of a level of care, there could be more beds," Robinson said. "More beds means more jobs."

Jobs are something on everyone's mind after OLBH closed.

While Springfield and OLBH have their differences — Crown Recovery sits on 52 acres with luscious green space and a full-sized track, while OLBH is constrained to 25 acres with little grass and trees — Robinson said he hopes to institute a similar program at the facility.

Some rehabs are basic 28-day programs, long enough to dry someone out, teach them a bit of recovery lingo and turn them out onto the streets. They can cost thousands of dollars. ARC is a long-term rehab, with the aim of taking a broken drug addict or alcoholic and turning them into a productive member of society, according to Robinson.

"We look at this holistically, by looking at the medical aspect, the recovery aspect, life skills and job skills," Robinson said.

As is found in recovery programs writ large, ARC isn't without its acronyms — inside a room filled with men sitting around a preacher who is himself in recovery, Robinson brings up ROPES: Recovery, Opportunity, Physical Health, Emotional Health and Spiritual Health. The idea is to attack addiction at all sides, setting up clients for success when they walk through the door.

Brandon is a drug addict and alcoholic who at one point had 4 1/2 years in recovery. In fact, he was working in recovery when he relapsed. Having working through the steps of a 12-step fellowship and having had an employer send him to rehab in Owensboro, Brandon knew his way around the recovery rigmarole. For Brandon, the holistic approach is something different.

"The fact they give us skills for employment and a job when we graduate from here is big," Brandon said. "Some places will employ alumni when they leave, but not for long. You can make a career here if you actually want to."

Unlike some rehabs seen around Kentucky — which is based on a more urban model where folks go out on the streets during the day to find work and attend 12-step recovery meetings — ARC keeps its clients at the campus, unless sent out in small groups to go to a store or attend a meeting.

Robinson said that model works great in Louisville, but doesn't translate as well in rural areas — he points to complaints in Grayson as a case in point.

"In rural areas, we don't have meetings going on 24/7, so it just doesn't work as well out here," he said. "When we're looking at coming to a community, we stress that we're not like that."

A tour of the facility showed clean conditions — the floors were mopped and the grounds were clean. Men were meeting in various parts of the facility, going to and fro from various appointments. A 12-step meeting was going over the first three steps, the foundation for recovery via that method. Another class was teaching the Gospel. In the gym, clients were lifting weights. At the cafeteria, some ate while others served food.

The rehab is self-sustaining — the clients learn skills by doing the upkeep themselves on the facility, providing their own cooking and cleaning.

In the dormitories, where men are bunked six to a room, the living quarters are spotless — a far cry from the conditions many find themselves in during active addiction.

Brandon said a lot of guys show up without any life skills. They'd never made a bed or picked up a broom in their lives.

Learning to stay away from the first one is just a part of learning how to actually live life, he said.

The need

Sen. Webb said the need for a rehab is very real in her district.

As an attorney, Webb said she is very familiar with ARC — she's had clients use their services in the past. She's heard the concerns from her constituents, worries about a rehab decreasing the property values and safety in the community.

"They're already in the community and when they're using, they're creating safety issues already," Webb noted. "I think a lot of people here want the opportunity to get clean and grow their talents."

When OLBH left Greenup County, it didn't just leave hundreds jobless and an empty building, according to Webb. It also took its detox and behavioral health unit with it, too.

"Losing that detox set us back, because people aren't able to get immediate assistance when they do try to get clean," she said. "This is a perfect storm for mental health."

While learning life, recovery and job skills is essential for long-term sobriety, getting the junk out of your system is the first and necessary step. After all, you can't get clean if you're still shooting dope; you can't get sober if you're still drinking whiskey.

Opiate withdrawals lead to flu-like symptoms that literally beat the addict into taking another dose. Alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal can actually kill a person.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the closest detox facility to the Ashland area is Thomas Memorial Hospital in Charleston, a whopping 55 miles away. If ARC were to open at OLBH, Robinson said he wants to get the detox unit back on line to serve the area.

Of course, with opiates and meth being the main drug of choice around these parts, it isn't just the withdrawal killing people — it's the use.

Greenup County also ranks fourth in per-capita fatal drug overdoses in 2019, the latest figures released by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. Boyd County ranks number three per-capita for that same year.

According to the SAMHSA statistics, 7.5% of Kentuckians suffer from a substance use disorder. While drug addiction tends to manifest itself in a public way — with crimes and other anti-social behaviors accompanying it — only 3.3% of Kentuckians suffer from a drug addiction, about 0.4% higher than the national average.

About 5% reported alcoholism, slightly below the national average, which is interesting considering this is the land of bourbon.

Robinson, a former county attorney for Martin County, said he knows that all too well — he continuously got drunk for eight years after the passing of his mother while he was in law school. While prosecuting DUIs, he himself could've gotten one on any number of nights, he noted; until a bailiff in the Martin County Circuit Court House introduced him to sobriety.

"There's a lot of addictions that are hidden and aren't as evident," he said. "This is hitting families of all types."

Next steps

Back in the conference room, Cooper tells the crowd what it's like today. He's what he jokingly called "an ARC-eolgist" because of how long he has spent in the program. He's had a couple slips here and there, but he has been doing well for a while now.

He is now an intern at the Crown Recovery Center facility, where he sees hope in being able to apply the degree he "barely remembered getting."

"There are career paths here," Cooper said. "This is means so much to people without the best records in the world, where finding a job can be difficult. It breaks the cycle of churning over in the legal system, being in and out of jail. I'm blessed to be here."

Nothing is set in stone over at OLBH. ARC isn't moving in tomorrow, nor does it appear to do so if the community is unreceptive.

At the end of the day, ARC didn't need to bring these elected officials down to Springfield. They didn't need to show anything — they could've just bought the land and done what they want.

After doing some property diligence, Robinson said if ARC decides to move forward they will hold a town hall meeting alongside elected officials.

Webb said having that town hall meeting will help with the "community's comfort level."

"I think once they see this is a closed campus with good security, they'll find comfort in that," Webb said.

Russell Mayor Ron Simpson said he was impressed with how well the Crown facility is run and how many questions he and the council got answered during the tour.

"I can go back to Russell and say there is security throughout the building. People sign in, they're monitored. There are doctors. There all kinds of medical staff, certain requirements," Simpson said. "Their method of helping us fight this drug addiction problem is productive and it gives people hope."

Rep. Bentley said felt like ARC "runs a tight ship."

"I am for anything that will rehabilitate anyone into society," Bentley said. "I think this is a nice place and I am impressed. Anyone who has looked at my bills will know I am focused on health care."

(606) 326-2653 — henry@dailyindependent.cm