Barbara Killmeyer - Freelance WriterJournalist, Travel Writer, Ghostwriter
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Window of Hope
         Barbara A. Killmeyer

What happens when two women get together over coffee to discuss a problem? The answer, of course, is that they find a solution.

In 1990 Dr. Mary Pat Donnegan and Terry Miller had a mutual interest in the problems faced by women who were in the early stages of recovery from the disease of alcohol and other drug addiction. Their concern led to the formation of the Pennsylvania Organization for Women in Early Recovery (P.O.W.E.R.). Donnegan and Miller were dismayed by the fact that after rehabilitation women returned to society to face the same problems and fears they had previously with no training or support system to help them. Another difficulty concerned the issue of gender. Any counseling or support that was available was open to both men and women. Rosa Davis, Executive Director of P.O.W.E.R. explained why this was detrimental to helping women. Davis said that women who are suffering from the disease of addiction are looked down upon and showered with more shame and guilt than men with the same problem. Their needs are different from those of men and should be addressed separately. Another factor is that by mixing the two sexes most women will focus on how they appear to the men in the group rather than on the issues. And finally, the women often come from abusive relationships and are uncomfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions in a group that is dominated by males.

Donnegan and Miller discussed all the concerns and took it upon themselves to do something to rectify the matter. They drew up a plan for a halfway house for women in early recovery and presented this plan to then State Representative Tom Murphy, now the current Mayor of Pittsburgh. Murphy knew of money that was available for programs relating to women and children and was instrumental in the establishment of the P.O.W.E.R. halfway house. This 25-bed residential treatment facility opened in Swissvale in 1991 and continues to the Allegheny County's only halfway house program for adult women.

When Donnegan and Miller were searching for a building to use for the halfway house they came across the practically empty convent of St. Anselm Church in Swissvale. It occurred to the women that this was a perfect solution; the bedrooms were already there and it was set up to house a community of women. Through the combined efforts of Fr. Cheetam and Sr. Joyce Serratore P.O.W.E.R. was able to rent the former convent and transform it into a residential treatment center. Davis is quick to point out that much of the success is due to the welcoming support of the community of Swissvale.

Women in the early stages of recovery may live at the halfway house for a period of up to six months. During this time they are able to continue, or complete, schooling if this is necessary. They are provided with classes in life skills development, parenting and nutrition education and courses in writing and art. The women receive therapy, counseling and learn to live with and communicate with peers. When they are ready to leave the facility referrals for housing are provided as well as some basic needs such as pots, pans, dishes, toasters, etc.; enough to get started again.

Davis said, "Many of the women have nothing to return to; they came to us with only the clothes they were wearing. We try to give them a start toward a new life. We do our best to help them to get the resources they need."

Follow up is made four times a year; at 30 days, 90 days, 6 months and 1 year. Of those who respond there is a better than 50% success rate at the 6 month level.

Davis said, "In the program they are surrounded by support. When they leave, they go into a world that does not understand or have tolerance for the illness. We need to have more community responsibility to overcome the stigma attached to it. This is why support groups are so important."

The halfway house was just the beginning. In recent years two more programs have been developed to better serve the women in recovery. The first to open was P.O.W.E.R. Outpatient located at Fifth Avenue Commons - a community collaborative located in the Uptown section of Pittsburgh. This program offers regular alcohol and other drug counseling, as well as an intensive outpatient program. The services generally occur in group settings and are provided for a total of nine hours each week.

The second new program is P.O.W.E.R. Connection. This is a unique partnership with Allegheny County's Department of Human Services, Office of Children, Youth & Families and Magee-Womens Hospital. P.O.W.E.R. Connection is an intervention program whereby an assessment is made if there is a suspicion that alcohol or other drugs may be interfering with a mother's ability to care for her children. If, after the assessment, addiction is indicated, the P.O.W.E.R. staff makes a referral for treatment and facilitates the client's admission to a program that can best meet her needs.

Davis is concerned about the cut in funding for programs such as P.O.W.E.R. She said, "Drug and alcohol funding is really in jeopardy at this time. Funding was cut by more than one half this year. P.O.W.E.R. receives funding from the county, but the money comes from the state." Each year, in October, P.O.W.E.R. has one major fund raising project, the lead sponsor being National City Bank. This project is a luncheon/fashion show held at the Pittsburgh Hilton and featuring celebrities helping to sell raffle tickets, act as Master of Ceremonies and model fashions provided by local retailers. Their efforts this year showed a net profit of approximately $116,000.

It is estimated that for every dollar invested in treatment, anywhere from $7 to $11 is saved. Here are a few facts to consider when thinking about the effects of alcohol or other drug addiction:

  • 1 in 4 families are affected by substance abuse, 1 in 10 Americans will become alcoholic.
  • Addiction is a disease that affects everyone, whether directly or indirectly.
  • 66 - 80% of children in the child welfare system, or who are separated from their families, have at least one parent suffering from chemical dependency.
  • More than half of fatal car accidents involve a drunk driver.
  • More than 90% of rapes on college campuses occur while the perpetrator, the victim or both are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
  • There are 400 - 500 alcohol related deaths a day.

The following is just one success story of a woman who benefited from the services of P.O.W.E.R.

In January of 1996, Carol entered P.O.W.E.R. House at the age of 31 after nearly 20 years of abusing alcohol and other drugs. Carol began drinking at the age of 12. It was then that she realized that when she drank she felt funnier, prettier and just plain more popular. By the time Carol turned 16, she had graduated from high school, moved out on her own and began using other drugs.

In her early twenties, Carol got married and had 2 children. Unfortunately, even her love for her children could not compete with the power of the disease of addiction. After a failed suicide attempt that put others in danger, Carol finally reached her spiritual and emotional bottom. After a psychiatric evaluation, she went directly to jail and it was there that she finally asked for help. Carol describes that time as both the worst and the best week of her life. The best, because it was at this point that she finally started her journey of recovery.

While at P.O.W.E.R., Carol recalls fighting the urge to leave several times. But, even knowing that she would be facing incarceration after treatment, she was determined to change her life. It was at P.O.W.E.R., she says, that she learned how to accept and give help; interact with other women; become more responsible and trustworthy; be a loving sister, daughter and friend; and most importantly - how to love and care for her children.

Carol recalls that her children's love sustained her while she was at P.O.W.E.R. and that during their visits, they would hide notes of encouragement that would make her laugh and cry as she discovered them. She graduated from P.O.W.E.R. with what she describes as a "solid foundation in recovery."

Today, Carol is happily married, working and enrolled in Community College on a part-time basis. She attends 12-Step meetings regularly and sponsors other women in early recovery. She and her family live in the country and are "surrounded by God's beauty," she explains. Carol is enjoying her new life filled with promise. Carol is a powerful model of success with 8 years and 9 months clean and sober!

If you would like to consider giving a helping hand to women who need you there are many ways to reach out. Of course P.O.W.E.R. can always use monetary gifts, but in addition they need volunteers to transport women to appointments, someone to give talks on parenting and nutrition, people to have fund raising events. They can use someone to assist with food preparation such as organizing menus and ordering food at the halfway house. They need clerical help. Small toiletries items such as shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste and deodorant are always welcome, and the women appreciate receiving journals to record their thoughts, feelings and progress as they continue on the road to recovery. If you can help in any way call the P.O.W.E.R. volunteer coordinator, Karen Clark at 412-271-0500 X 125 to offer your services.

Through the coffee conversations of two women who saw a need and had the courage to fill that need and through the services of P.O.W.E.R., the result of their efforts, women who suffer from the disease of addiction are offered a window of hope for a better and healthier future.

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