A band of Independence “brothers” are celebrating significant anniversaries – for some, the date represents only days or weeks, but others are reveling in a year or more. Although the time frame is different for each, they're all celebrating the same significant day – the day they broke free from substance and alcohol addiction.

Some, who are celebrating sobriety following lifelong struggles, said during a recent interview at their home, that they began using as very young children.

The men credit Oxford House, an international recovery program, which operates an Independence home where they live, with their first steps toward new lives.

Resident Kyle Dunn is emphatic about who to thank for his new start.

“Oxford House saved my life,” he said

The group live as a family – recovering alcoholics and drug addicts serving each other with daily doses of encouragement, hope and accountability. The recovering addicts said they work together to achieve difficult but attainable sobriety goals, one Oxford-orchestrated step at a time.

Most of the seven men recently were released from drug-treatment programs. One is a veteran house member who spent his early stint in another house and now is sharing his knowledge with the newbies, a key element of the self-governing style of Oxford. Some attended treatment programs while serving time in prison, most on drug- and alcohol-related charges, including the possession, sale or use of illegal drugs or DUI and some with accompanying weapons charges, said Outreach Worker Lance Whitney.

They now consider a house in southwest Independence, Oxford’s first in Eastern Jackson County, as home. Local Oxford officials recently opened another EJC home in northern Lee’s Summit, and officials have set a goal of operating as many as 20 houses in the Kansas City area by the end of 2020, said Whitney, a recovering addict and alumnus of the Oxford program. In another goal, local Oxford officials plan soon to open four more houses in Eastern Jackson County.

The Oxford model, which was launched during the 1970s, is unique in that it allows residents to live in their homes indefinitely when they observe program rules of remaining sober, paying rent and other expenses, and doing chores. Kansas City area houses join about 2,800 Oxford Houses in five countries, according to the program’s website. In fact, a U.S. surgeon general’s report recently endorsed the Oxford model based on the effectiveness of the program as determined by a DePaul University study, the website states.

The model calls for residents to pay about $110 weekly rent to investors, who act as landlords after purchasing and renovating the homes, said Whitney, who plays a key role teaching Oxford traditions to new residents, guiding house governance, working with parole officers and drug courts, and locating available, affordable homes in decent neighborhoods. He also works with private investors and is charged with finding furniture and other household necessities through donations.

The Oxford model calls for opening houses in safe neighborhoods, and the homes come fully furnished, down to the bed linens, Whitney said. The former recovery coach at the Topeka Department of Corrections, where he served time for drug and alcohol offenses, said he’s blessed to work for Oxford. After the program helped him, he said he accepted a job offer working for the program because he “felt the desire to give back.”

A local connection

Whitney notes that the Independence house, which opened in December, is “the nicest house with the nicest yard in the neighborhood,” adding that the house’s appearance inside and out is due to the efforts of the residents who are proud of their newfound recovery and home and happily rotate the chores. Houses are run by democracy, with written bylaws and weekly business meetings where residents vote on many issues, including whether to pay for internet and cable television and which companies to use, Whitney said. House members take turns serving as house officers. In addition, representatives of several area homes meet monthly at chapter meetings, where they plan fundraising events to help with house expenses, Whitney said.

Oxford also hosts national conventions where residents and staff learn more about recovery research and tools, said Doug Ballou, who helped found a non-profit that locally helps to support Oxford House. Kansas City house residents boasted the highest attendance, with about 25 members, of any chapter nationwide at the national convention this past fall in Washington, D.C., Ballou said. The attendance shows the growing numbers of those who rely on Oxford in the Kansas City area, said Ballou, a behavioral health consultant who lives at Weatherby Lake. The 2018 convention was held in Kansas City, said Ballou, a founder of In the Name of GRACE (Giving Recovering Addicts a Chance to Evolve).

In 2016, Ballou and his wife, Nancy Whitworth, along with Rob and Anissa Elsey, launched the group after the Elsey’s daughter was admitted to an Oxford House.

“Watching my beautiful, young and talented daughter spiral downward with drugs was the most difficult thing in my life,” Rob Elsey is quoted as having said on the GRACE website. “Watching her fight to climb out of addiction was exhilarating. Watching her relapse was heartbreaking. Thus began the emotional roller coaster of my life as the parent of an addict. … We must do something to help addicts fight for their lives ...” he said. “We must give them the grace they deserve.”

Although their daughter found space in a Kansas City area home, the Elseys were motivated to help fund the program when they learned of how many recovering addicts are turned away due to a lack of space. The couple, who live in unincorporated Platte County, sought assistance from the Ballous and they joined with a few others to form GRACE (Giving Recovering Addicts a Chance to Evolve), which advocates for Oxford, according to its literature.

“I don’t talk to anybody anymore who isn’t experiencing this,” Ballou said of addiction. “This (Oxford House) is a proven concept that’s addressing the issue of our time,” he said.

Ballou pointed to statistics compiled by the Missouri Division of Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to illustrate the need for substance abuse assistance in Jackson County. In 2014, records show a little more than 880 drug- and alcohol-related hospitalizations and more than 5,500 drug-related emergency room visits. In 2015, county statistics show that nearly 4,700 were admitted to substance abuse treatment programs due to alcohol, marijuana and prescription drug use.

GRACE has been embraced in Eastern Jackson County, as evidenced by a recent grant to the organization from Eastland Giving Circle, a non-profit group of philanthropic, civic-minded EJC women, Ballou said. That’s why an objective of GRACE is to help fund more Kansas City area houses as soon as possible, he said.

To help, the foundation will host its largest annual fundraiser, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 5 at English Landing Park in Kansas City. To enroll or for more information about the foundation, visit www.inthenameofgrace.org.

The effects of abuse

Continual abuse often leads to strained relationships as families struggle to establish boundaries as protection from users who put their addiction about everything, even those they love. House members usually view the holidays with dread. Holidays often lead addicts to struggle with broken relationships, which can cause them to dive deeper into addiction. If sober, the stress of the holidays can lead those in recovery to relapse.

That’s why Oxford is about breaking the cycle. Residents attend meetings where they learn more about their recovery methods and assistance. They also frequently “talk recovery,” sharing hardships and school-of-hard-knocks lessons, said the men in the Independence house. It’s important for those in recovery to form new relationships, distancing themselves from former friends, who also are users.

“I thought they were good friends,” Tyler Carvan, 32, said of his former associates. “I’m not interested in them anymore.”

Keith Howard, 48, said relationship is what sets the Oxford House model apart from other recovery programs. Residents know the warning signs that a member is heading down the path toward relapse – erratic behavior that grows increasingly isolated from the group, ignoring house rules and failure to participate in chores and meetings.

“We take care of each other,” Keith said. “That’s the only way we’re going to make it.”

While praise has been lavished on those who open and support Oxford houses throughout the country, Whitney and Ballou choose to give credit to those enrolled in the program.

“When you talk to these residents, it’s been a journey,” Ballou said, adding that the process requires an immense amount of determination. But Oxford House occupants aren’t only concerned about their own recovery and long-term sobriety. They also invest time and effort helping others to achieve their goals.

Whitney said, “If you are focused on staying sober … you get around people in recovery and you want to stay that way,” he said. “These residents really pay it forward.”

To learn more, visit https://vimeopro.com/overflowstorytellinglab/in-the-name-of-grace