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January 13, 2014

‘Learning to meet life on life’s terms’

Independence House gets two gifts

CORBIN — By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer

Thursday morning, as the cold January air began to thaw in Corbin, the women of Independence House were waiting on two gifts to arrive.

One was from Frankfort — a check from the state for a half-million dollars payable to Independence House — a center that helps pregnant women with substance abuse and addictions.

The other was a bundle of joy.

A baby boy, born to Sara, one of the women staying at the center.

She and her newborn son were expected to be there sometime around lunch. When it was time to leave the hospital, Sara would call the center and someone would bring them there.

The state money comes from a drug settlement with pharmaceutical companies.

Last Monday, Attorney General Jack Conway, Gov. Steve Beshear, first lady Jane Beshear and other officials announced that $32 million will go to fight drug addiction in Kentucky.

Independence House, and Chrysalis House in Lexington, will share $1 million to help with their treatment programs.

Other benefits from the settlement include $500,000 for building the Kentucky Recovery Center in Ashland, and $2.52 million to pay for 30 scholarships a year for those unable to afford treatment for substance abuse.

Two pharmaceutical companies — GlaxoSmithKline and Merck — were sued by Conway to failing to disclose the health risks of drugs they marketed in Kentucky. He settled the two cases in Franklin Circuit Court for $40 million. The settlement agreements stated that $32 million of the money go towards drug abuse treatment.

The original three-year grant that Independence House received six years ago ran out Sept. 30, 2011. Since then, the facility has struggled due to lack of funding.

Mary Burnette, the center’s long-time director, and the staff reached out to the Governor and First Lady for help. They also received funding from the state through a housing incentive grant, based on household size and the income of the persons there in the house. The grant was part of the state’s Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, program.

Then came the announcement of the drug settlement between the pharmaceutical companies and the state last week.

“We’re so grateful to get the money, just to be able to continue to help all of those women that can reach us,” said Georgia Douglas, a substance abuse counselor with Independence House.

Burnette agreed.

“We’ve spent so much time in Frankfort, testifying to the State Senate committees, asking for more funding, and for the state to regulate the drug companies. Several State Senators such as Sen. Bob Stivers, and State representatives from our region have been here in recent months to talk with us and tour our facility. I’m eternally grateful to Jack Conway, the Governor and the First Lady for the settlement funding. We’re working for a population that can’t say no — the babies,” she said.

Located on a hillside off the Cumberland Falls Highway since 1990, Independence House is a small facility, usually treating around 15 women at a time.

The treatment involves both individual counseling and group counseling. They use the “12-step program” originated by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and also used by Narcotics Anonymous (NA). In the evenings, the women either have AA or NA meetings inside the house, or go to similar meetings in other locations.

A large room in the basement of the main house, called “The AA Room,” is used for the meetings. It also doubles as a conference room, a place for training sessions, and a room for holiday get-togethers.

Assistant director Samantha Sowders added the room is used on Sundays — “family days” — where the women can spend time with their children, parents, relatives and friends.

There are two phases of treatment the women go through. “Phase 1” involves 40 days of intense treatment, while “Phase 2” helps the women get their GED diploma, complete their parenting classes, get a job and reconnect with their families.

Sowders pointed out there’s a stigma about being a female addict who’s pregnant.

“They’re afraid about all sorts of things, like social services involvement and law enforcement. But with this program, we’re able to target the whole person. We’ve had over 100-150 babies born ‘clean.’ And after that time of birth, the women had the time to bond with their babies for 30 days,” she said.

Noted Burnette, “And before the babies were born, the women could go through the experience of pregnancy in a safe, healthy and positive manner.”  

According to the Kentucky Health News blog last October, a report from the Trust for America’s Health said the state’s prescription drug abuse rates have quadrupled since 1999. Kentucky has the third highest drug overdose rate in the nation. In 2010, the state had 236 people per million people suffer overdose fatalities.

And in a poll co-sponsored last year by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, 45 percent of those reporting from eastern Kentucky said prescription drug abuse has caused problems for friends, relatives and family members. The poll found that young adults were more likely to have the problem.

Burnett noted the Independence House program has been quite successful.

“It’s so successful, because we had so many healthy babies born to mothers who were able to get regular prenatal care. They were able to get the care, instead of ignoring their health. … Most of the mothers didn’t have their own residence. They were basically homeless, and living below the poverty line,” she said.

Inside the main house of Independence House, the wafting aroma of lunch being cooked filled the air. The women are fixing cheeseburger macaroni, green beans and a tossed salad. One of the women, Tiffany, smiles as she stirs the hamburger and the cheese sauce on the stove. Nearby, another woman, Lora, works on the salad, peeling and slicing a cucumber at a workstation in the middle of the clean and spacious kitchen.

As Burnette walks inside, both Lora, Tiffany, and the other women warmly greet her with, “Hello, Miss Mary!”

She greeted them back.

“Over the years, all the women who get treatment here call me ‘Miss Mary.’ I don’t know why, but they do,” Burnette said, smiling.

Along with treatment, the center teaches the women responsibility. It gives them a sense of self-esteem.

Sowders mentioned, “Before they came here, we had some women who didn’t know basic responsibilities, like cooking, cleaning and taking care of their children and themselves.”

“When the mothers have their babies here, they have total responsibility for them. The mothers have parenting programs here, and all the care they get here makes them accept their responsibilities for life. It gives them such a good feeling of accomplishment in every step they take. And if they don’t succeed, they try, try again,” said Burnette.

From the kitchen, she and Sowders go inside the hallway of the main house. On the wall is a frame filled with pictures of some of the children born during the time the center received the original three-year grant.

Burnette pointed to the child’s mother.

“She’s now working for the drug court in Perry County. She just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in counseling through Lindsey Wilson College. We keep in touch with her,” she said with a grin.

There are several bedrooms throughout the main house, where the women who are in Phase 1 treatment stay.

A few feet away is an adjoining modular home called, “The Cottage.”

“It’s for women who are in Phase 2. It’s more independent for them. They have to take care of it. It’s their goal to move from the main house to this cottage. It’s a sense of pride and accomplishment to come over here,” noted Sowders.

Just as in the main house, the rooms where the women and their babies sleep are clean, neat and warmly decorated by Burnette herself.

Going inside to a room filled with three beds, a heart-shaped, hand-painted figure hangs over one of the beds. It said, “Have I told you lately that I love you?”

Burnette said, “That was given to us by a woman who went through this program. She made several of them for us. ‘Giving Back’ is part of the 12 steps our program is based on. When a former resident comes back to visit, the women currently in treatment see hope, strength and courage. It’s called ‘learning to meet life on life’s terms.’”

As the noon hour nears, Sara calls the center from the hospital.

She and her newborn son are ready to come back to Independence House.

One of the staff members gets into a vehicle and heads towards town to pick them up.

Before lunch was being served, one of those helping to prepare it came downstairs to the family room of the main house.

Everyone calls her “Nikki.”

She’s expecting her child to be born this May.

The ultrasound’s been done. It’ll be a girl.

Nikki’s been at the center since September.

“Sept. 24th, to be exact. I was in drug court. I didn’t know anything but addiction. I’ve been getting high for 20 years. I asked the drug court for help and they agreed. On Sept. 24th, the drug court people called here at Independence House. They asked for long-term help for me. They thought that would be my best bet. I came here two days later,” she remembered.

Nikki added she was scared to death when she came to the center that very first time.

“I didn’t know recovery. I didn’t know anything about it. This was all new to me. I didn’t know what ‘sober’ was like. Here, they teach you, ‘either you want it, or you don’t.’ And I wanted to recover. It took me a while to find God, but I found Him, and I want recovery. I’m happier now. I can get up in the morning and smile. I like that,” she said.

The center’s staff was also waiting to give Nikki a helping hand.

And she took it.

“I’m not shy. Each one of the staff has something to offer you. They’ve given me the tools to stay sober. I talk to every one of the staff here. You just need to use them, if you want. They can help you,” she said.

The process was a complete changeover, a new mindset, and a different kind of life. For Nikki, the steps came one at a time.

“A lot of us only know one thing, drugs. A lot of people don’t even have a clue. But here, there’s different things we learn. Here, we learn to love. We learn self-esteem. We learn a life of self-sobriety. The staff gives you the tools to stay sober. Some girls come in and they don’t want it. They don’t know compassion, they don’t know friendship, but they know manipulation. Then, they finally want to recover, and they turn over their old life for a new life,” Nikki pointed out.

It was once said, “Hope springs eternal.” And this spring will bring a new chapter in Nikki’s life, as she becomes a mother again.

She softly stated as her eyes began to well up,  “I am looking forward to it. At first, I wanted a little boy. I’ve got girls, but I haven’t been in their lives because of drugs. Now, I’ve found a better way, this place. I’m happy to be here. I’m ready for my little girl. I want to braid her hair and teach her little girl things. My kids know I’ve had problems, and they’re excited for me getting help. They love me, they need me. And I want, love and need them.”

Upstairs in a screened patio, counselor Sarah Wright gets a breath of fresh, chilly air after talking to one of the women.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about the program. Some people think it’s all about getting them out of jail and fixing their legal issues. But this program teaches them how to live without the drugs. It teaches them how to cope with the problems instead of numbing it with drugs, or hiding from their problems. We teach them how to live life better,” she said.

A bit of sunlight began to filter through the clouds. It beamed down on the buildings for a couple of minutes.

Wright looked up and spoke again about what she and the center do.

“A lot of these women have very low self-esteem. We teach them that they are not their addiction. Addiction is what they have, not who they are. They are people like everybody else. They just have a problem with addiction. I’ve been here almost seven years, and I have not met a bad person here. Only good people with bad problems,” she noted.

As of last Thursday afternoon, the check from the state didn’t come.

When asked the half-million dollar question, Burnette laughed and said, “We don’t know when we’ll get it. But knowing that it will get here is relief in itself. I told Sam (Samantha Sowders), ‘They, the state, can’t back out. It’s been in the paper.’”

Around 12:50 p.m., the vehicle picking up Sara and her baby boy at Baptist Health Corbin hospital arrive at the center.

When mother and son go inside, all activity stops.

Sara introduces everyone to her baby — a 6-pound, 4-ounce boy.

His name is Trystan Allen Jase Cook.

He came into the world Tuesday, Jan. 7, at 4:26 p.m.

Both mother and child are doing well.

Sara said to Burnette and Sowders it was an experience she’ll never forget.

“I loved it. I loved seeing my daughter, Journey, be with him. She said, ‘That’s my baby!’ My mom was also there and said, ‘I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to let go of him.’ You really understand what ‘unconditional love’ means,” Sara said.

For her, the show of support from the staff and the other women in the program was amazing and beyond belief.

And a testament to the treatment Sara’s receiving to stay clean and sober.

For herself. And for her son and family.

“It’s surprises me that all of them care that much about me and my child. When it was time for me to have my baby they were as excited as I was. They’ve helped me here, and they’ve helped me understand who I am now. I’m a strong woman who’s clean, and I’m ready to fight on. I’m a mother, I’m a daughter and I used to think I was nobody. But now I’m somebody. I realize that now. I’m worth saving,” said Sara, as she held Trystan tightly.

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