Columbus, Ohio USA
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Turning Lives Around for Good
House of Hope opens the door to positive change for recovering addicts
By Cynthia Bent Findlay
January 2011 Issue

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Photos © Larry Hamill

House of Hope

At the corner of Dennison and Hubbard avenues stands a stately stone and brick Victorian house that looks like anything but a starter home. The distinctive three-story house is surrounded by elegant and well-cared-for landscaping; the lot is large and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.

But 825 Dennison is exactly that – a place for a new start. For almost 40 years, the house has quietly served as a place to begin again for hundreds of men recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. It’s known as the House of Hope.

The House of Hope has provided a long-term place to live and program of recovery since 1959 for severely addicted men who often have nowhere else to turn. Clients may be attorneys or fresh from homeless camps, says Carolyn Ireland, House of Hope’s executive director. “The disease doesn’t discriminate.”

Most have no jobs and few financial resources. Some have done jail time, but one thing ties them together.

“By the time they get here, they want to change their lives. People can be court ordered to treatment, but if they don’t want it, it doesn’t work. For inpatient treatment, you have to want to change your life, and when they come here, they are willing to change,” Ireland says.

The House of Hope runs both inpatient and outpatient alcohol rehab programs through its Victorian Village and Harrisburg Pike locations, as well as a halfway house on the South Side for clients transitioning back to independent living. But the long-term residential program is the heart of the organization.

The program can truly help turn lives around for good, Ireland says. Surveys completed in 2008 by House of Hope alumni show a 77.9 percent reduction in drug use after their stay, for example. Ireland, board members, and former patients attribute that success to the program’s intensive nature and the length of stay it can provide for patients who can find no other way to turn around the wreckage of their lives.

Research in drug and alcohol treatment shows that length of stay is important to successful outcomes for patients. Stays six months or longer and completion of treatment plans were associated with both greater reduction in criminal activity and better avoidance of relapse into drug and alcohol use than shorter-term treatment in a survey done by the Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2004, for example.

The House of Hope is one of the few residential treatment programs in Franklin County where men can stay longer than 30 days. There are long-term stay facilities for women and their children, but almost nowhere else for desperate men to turn.

Carolyn Ireland, appointed executive director in August 2008, has served the organization since the early '90s.

Within 825 Dennison and the large red brick house just across the street at 177 Hubbard, also owned by the House of Hope, the program has room for 20 residents who stay an average of six months. The House is able to help some 50 to 60 men each year, most of whom have gone through other treatment programs and relapsed time after time. There is a waiting list usually some six weeks long at any given time.

“There’s not many long-term treatment options for men where they get somewhere to live, get to learn how to work on themselves, don’t have to worry about work, bills, they’ve got six months to really look at themselves and do some beginning changes,” says Ireland.

The nuts and bolts of the program sound simple. Programming runs at least 30 hours per week for residents. There are group counseling sessions, group and individual activities, and 12-step program meetings in the evenings. Guest lecturers come to inspire. There are classes in everything from anger management to cooking and trade skills like painting. But what clients discover about themselves, some while learning to navigate and cope with their emotions sober for the first time in their adult lives, is the nitty gritty.

“We learned really to be responsible for ourselves. We had to get up, be accountable, I had to start taking a look at myself and my behaviors. I found that drinking was just a symptom of my disease. There was a lot more to it than just quitting drinking. They gave me pretty good tools on basic ways to live, there at the House of Hope and with other outside programs,” says Rex, a former client who wishes to be identified only by his first name.

“You don’t have to worry about dealing with people in the workplace, you can concentrate on recovery, take a good look at yourself,” he says.

Rex, once a high school student council leader, started to get into serious drinking, and serious trouble, by the age of 19. Almost a decade of DUI arrests, auto accidents, a three-day stay at a local treatment center, and the near destruction of his relationship with his mother and sisters didn’t change his thinking.

“I kept thinking I could probably control it myself,” he says now. “But I turned into someone I didn’t think I’d ever become.”

A serious prison stay for grand theft and a court-ordered stint at the House of Hope in 1986 finally helped Rex turn the corner.“

I just asked God to help me. I asked to get put somewhere I could get it together, and that’s where I ended up. I was so sick and tired of living the way I had. At this point I was suicidal, I’d think about driving my truck into concrete embankments. But I got to the House of Hope, and pretty soon I realized I was in the place I needed to be. I truly believe it was a spiritual thing,” Rex says.

“One thing that is true about the House of Hope is that they don’t want to be a mega program, an assembly line. They want be in a situation where they know intimately the profiles of each person in the program. When they’re able to do that, they can keep track easily of their situations and conditions and can be able to fill the gaps of what might be needed in terms counseling, referral services for jobs, anything to help them become self-sustaining once they leave,” says Dr. Reginald Wilkinson, one of ten House of Hope board members.

A meeting of minds: Board members and staff at the Dennison Avenue House of Hope.

Among other community positions, Wilkinson served for fifteen years as the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, during which he became intimately familiar with the workings of the substance abuse treatment network throughout the state. He’s also currently president and CEO of the Ohio College Access Network.

Wilkinson says he first got to know the work of the House of Hope ten years or so ago when he was asked to speak at a house event.

“Over the course of that time I gained a lot of respect for how they quietly go about the business of helping alcoholics become repatriated back into society,” Wilkinson says. When he moved to Victorian Village a little more than three years ago, Wilkinson says he jumped at the chance to help more by serving on the board.

“Their treatment model is a very good one. It involves dealing with anger, they have life coaching, job readiness, mediation, socialization, relaxation skill programs, alternative programs help people look at their creativity. They have programs that help people look at the skills that have just gone numb. They need to relearn everything sometimes. Providing that gives people a much greater chance for successful treatment versus just teaching in specific areas,” says Ajamú Brown, network services manager for the Alcohol Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County, who says he wishes there were more long-term treatment programs like House of Hope.

Brown says that on average, national statistics say that perhaps only half of all clients even complete rehabilitation programs, and that the House of Hope has a much better average outcome for patients.

From October 2009 to November 2010, for example, the House of Hope provided both outpatient and long-term residential alcohol and drug addiction treatment to 343 individuals. At the conclusion of their treatment, 89 percent reported a decrease in problems and/or impairment from substance use; 87 percent of those served reported that they had experienced a decrease in psychological distress, and 84 percent reported an increase in functioning and quality of life.

Times are changing, says Ireland. Clients are trending younger, as young as 21, and many are addicted to opiates such as heroin, and prescription drugs like oxycontin.

If anything, the recession has made it even harder for graduates of the House to get back into society. Many have burnt their family bridges and have no one to stay with. The House of Hope does run a halfway house, Sober House, on the South Side, but there is a waiting list for that, too.

The late Tom Ramseyer, former executive director, revered and loved for his service.

“It’s really hard for them right now. Lots have police records, and they’re competing for jobs they’d get in restaurants, things like that, with people who have an MBA these days. So they’re really struggling,” Ireland says. But through exit programs and twelve-step program help, the House staff try to keep in touch with their graduates and help them get back into the community.

The House of Hope itself has had its share of hard times, too.

The House of Hope was founded in 1959 through the efforts of George Connor, a Short North-area service station owner who used to try to help men by giving them a place on his floor to sleep.

The first location was at the famous Sells mansion at Buttles and Dennison, followed by a move in early 1962 to 98 Buttles Ave., a nurses’ quarters for White Cross Hospital. A fire destroyed much of that building in 1972. The House of Hope moved operations to the two present houses in 1973.

Many in the neighborhood remember Thomas Ramseyer, the iconic former executive director who served until his death in January 2008. Under his leadership the House of Hope’s operating budget expanded from $147,156 in 1983 to $1,231,261 in 1999.

Many former clients remember him as well as a rock who devoted his life to the program’s mission.

“He was selfless, unique,” says Rex. “Everyone was really scared of him, because he always used big words, really messed with you psychologically, but once I graduated from the program there, he treated me like a king. He gave me opportunities to give back, in subtle ways. He was always looking to give and keep the relationships going.”

After Ramseyer’s passing, Ireland assumed the helm. Wilkinson and Rex both say she has all of Ramseyer’s passion for the mission; Rex says she has added a “woman’s touch,” such as having rooms repainted calming, light colors rather than the masculine brown they used to be.

Like many nonprofits, the House of Hope has also had its share of financial hardship. Around 2008, the House suffered through a combination of blows that led to the organization’s losing a reported $150,000 per year.

Steven’s House, a South Side-based program for adolescents, was operating at a deficit and eventually was converted to a “sober house,” a halfway house for recovering alcoholics transitioning from treatment. The recession also meant big funding cuts from all sources; Ireland says the House lost almost $400,000, or 21.9 percent of revenue, in that period.

Kitchen remodeling and repairs were finally realized after a fiscal recovery.

But through some extremely hard work and clever management by CFO Ed Sweeney, the House is back on its feet. Sweeney was able to connect the house with federal stimulus funds and then persuade local foundations and businesses to match the money to raise $65,000.

Sweeney was also able to tighten the organization’s belt to the tune of more than $35,000 by helping staff switch to Medicare, changing auditors and retirement benefits plans. Sweeney says he’s in the midst of refinancing House of Hope’s mortgage which should be able to save the organization another $2,000 per month.

Word has gotten out. Sweeney was awarded an honorable mention by Business First of Columbus in September in its annual CFO of the Year awards.

Ed Sweeney, House of Hope's CFO, rescued the organization from recent economic woes.

The organization had its most successful fiscal year ever as of June 30, 2010. In the fiscal year ending in June 2010, the House of Hope received 61 percent of its $1,210,000 in revenue through ADAMH, one-quarter through other federal funding, and the rest through contributions and fees. The federal grant and matched money made possible much overdue remodeling of the kitchen, and repairs that will help make the houses more energy efficient.

Wilkinson says he and other board members take pride in knowing that despite the challenges faced by any nonprofit, the House of Hope is well-run and successful.

“But to me, the big thing about this is it’s a part of my neighborhood. The House of Hope has been serving the Central Ohio area for a long time, and quietly so. If people don’t know it’s there it’s almost a good thing. But I do think people need to know that in the heart of the Short North, and Victorian Village, there’s a jewel of a program that is providing very significant services to people who have had some very unfortunate situations over the course of their lives,” says Wilkinson.

One story, Wilkinson says, gets to the heart of why he believes in the program.

“One person in the program right now for much of his adult life was homeless. He gave a testimonial recently, about what the program meant to him. He ended with saying, even though this seems like a simple thing to all of you, but to me is a big deal – for the first time in my life, I have a door key.’ He’d never had a place to go to turn a key. Something as simple as that is enough to transform the life of one person,” Wilkinson says.

“Their recovery is very strong. The ones that are serious are still working on recovery and helping others, and I believe the House of Hope is responsible for a lot of that. You learn so much. I got into great routines – exercise, meditation and morning reading, some really good habits I was able to leave with and include in my life today,” says Rex in his own testimonial.

One of those habits on which he says he depends is to continue to give back. He has become successful enough that he gives financially and in kind to the House when he can by doing renovations. He comes back to talk with residents, show them it is possible to stay sober and get their lives back.

“Before, I was always taking. Today I get to give back. Really it’s the only way to forget our own problems, helping other people not thinking about ourselves,” he says.

Rex has now been sober for almost 25 years. He was able to get custody of a young son not long after he left the House of Hope.

“He’s 22 years old today, and he’s never seen me drink and that’s a blessing,” Rex says.

Rex also started his own business in 1988 and has been running it ever since. He married in 1994, and put his wife’s two boys and his own son through college.

“I have a purpose today. My life is a lot better than I could ever have imagined, especially back then sitting in the basement of the House of Hope, I felt so old and beat up at 28 years old. And I won’t say the HOH is totally responsible for all of that but they were a part of it,” Rex says.

“I’ve got a great life.”

To learn more about House of Hope, visit or call 614-291-4691.

© 2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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