Healing from within at Georgia’s Healing House
A middle-aged grandmother, a dynamic social worker, a physician—what do they all have in common? Each is battling addiction. Each has found safety, support, and most of all—hope—inside the doors of Georgia’s Healing House.
Started in 2015, Georgia’s Healing House (GHH)* is a residential haven for women in early recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. The stately Victorian house in Charlottesville accommodates up to 12 women at a time as they journey through treatment and therapy. The women are referred from the Region 10 catchment area, which includes Nelson County. The Nelson County Community Fund has awarded grants in support of GHH since its inception.
GHH Executive Director Sue Hess, and two of its residents, Heather Kellams, who handles marketing and fundraising/grant writing, and Deborah (Debbie) Arrington, sat down recently with Nelson County Advisory Committee member Sue Klett to describe life at the all-women’s residence.
Q: Debbie, you mentioned that you grew up in Nelson County. What was the path that led you down the road to an addiction to alcohol?
Debbie: My great-grandma’s house was where Afton Vineyards now stands, and my grandparents’ house is nearby. I grew up in a family with a huge history of alcoholism and tragedy. But I never drank much growing up. Then in 2002, I had gastric bypass surgery. The doctor warned me not to drink because if I did I could become an alcoholic [more easily]. That’s exactly what happened.
Q: You said you were in and out of addiction treatment programs for many years and in four different states. How did you come to live now at GHH? What were you looking for when you moved in here a year ago?
Debbie: I lost my house, my car, my job. It [addiction]cost me my marriage and my self-respect. Because of all that’s gone on in my life, my relationship with my daughter has been hard. She had even paid for me to go to treatment in Pennsylvania. But my grandsons are my life. One just turned 13 the other is 15 months old. I moved back [to Virginia] so I could be close by to see them. My daughter didn’t want me around them because of my drinking. Moving into GHH has kept me accountable. If I wasn’t living here, I’d probably be drinking and without a job, and maybe even dead. I have a roof over my head and peace at night, so I don’t need to drink. Even if I did move out, I would not want to be alone. I want a safety net.
Sue H.: Our motto is “recover, grow, flourish.” Debbie’s now in the grow and flourish phase. Besides attending treatment and therapy sessions, she drives a bus for Charlottesville city schools and attends PVCC (Piedmont Valley Community College) classes for information technology and business management.
Q: Aside from a sisterhood of women battling addiction, what sort of supports does GHH offer?
Sue H.: I’m a psychiatric nurse. It was a cocaine addict who inspired me to get involved with GHH. She said she needed a place to “just be,” a place where she could heal. When women first come to us they are in the “recovery (healing) stage,” the first one or two months. We don’t pressure them to have a job or worry about finances—just that they go to public/private therapy and support classes [offered throughout the community]. But there is structure so they can learn how to manage their lives again. Everyone has to be up by 8 a.m. (9.a.m. on weekends), then out at a job, or community service, or classes or something meaningful. There are group meals on Sundays and Thursdays when we check in on each other’s highs and lows of the week, discuss getting chores done, and so on. We also have random room checks and drug testing. Holidays are hard to get through, so we try to offer extra support over the holidays.
Q.: You say the average stay for a resident is 6 to 18 months. Heather, you are going on two years at GHH and are now on staff. What has the program done for you? As a former social worker, how are you giving back?
Heather: My favorite motto is “hope heals.” Instead of being defined by our addiction, here we teach women day-to-day how to live with their addiction. To see yourself not as an alcoholic but as someone who is able to manage yourself and your life. I started “Women for Sobriety” meetings in which our residents convene every Sunday night to rethink our habits and behavior to work toward positive outcomes. Research shows that women addicts need a separate healing program from men because women have so much more shame. Women for Sobriety is a recovery model that helps women focus on their strengths and is hope-oriented. You don’t look at the damaged life behind, you look out the front door to where you are going.
Sue H.: As long as women are setting appropriate goals and moving forward, they can stay here.
Q.: The media is full of stories about the opioid crisis, especially in rural areas. Has GHH seen an uptick in residents with opioid-related addictions?
Heather: Yes, we started with mostly alcohol-addicted residents. Now half of our residents are battling drug addictions, including opioids.
Q.: Do you think there is anything about living in a largely rural environment, in particular, that contributes to the growing addiction problem?
Debbie: It’s the isolation. Young people are bored; they’ve got nothing to do. What I’d say to a rural addict is not to isolate yourself, get yourself out [of your situation]. Get out and help other people.
Q.: What can you advise young women about not falling into the trap of becoming addicted?
Debbie: I’d like to see young women stay in school. I’d tell them just because your friends are doing something, if you are not comfortable doing it, don’t do it.
Sue H.: It’s also a trend with rural addicts that they want to come in and get treatment and heal, but they can’t because so many are caregivers in their family and they are needed at home. We also need to get people into treatment—not jail. Many addicts suffer from a cycle of mental health problems, trauma, and addiction. Jail does not help break that cycle.
Q.: What’s at the top of your wish list for GHH?
Sue: A step-down house where people like Debbie can go that offers more freedom and responsibility, but where you do not have to live alone. We need affordable rental property where women can pay more of their expenses as they become able.
Q: Thank you, and keep up your wonderful work.
*The non-profit Georgia’s Healing House is named for Georgia Barbour, a professional photographer and former Peace Corps volunteer who died from alcoholism, in part because she had no place to heal. For more information Georgia’s Healing House and to find out about its tea party fundraisers, visit www.georgiasfriendscville.org.
Blue Ridge Area Food Bank
~provides fresh, nutritional food to underserved areas via its mobile pantry.
Blue Ridge Interfaith Ministry
~gives emergency assistance to individuals and families.
Blue Ridge Medical Center’s Rural Health Outreach Program and Medication Assistance Program
~delivers preventive health services and prescription drugs to those in need.
DePaul Community Resources
~expands foster care options in Nelson County for children.
Georgia’s Healing House
~supports Nelson County women in recovery for drug and alcohol addiction and mental health challenges.
Girls on the Run of Central Virginia
~builds positive development in young girls through physical activity programs at county elementary schools.
Monticello Area Community Action Agency’s Community Outreach
~assists with utility payments and other crisis intervention.
Monticello Area Community Action Agency’s Project Discovery
~helps send Nelson County High School students to college through mentoring and scholarships.
Nature Foundation at Wintergreen
~provides environmental and cultural history learning opportunities for students.
Nelson County Community Development Foundation
~makes emergency repairs to the homes of the elderly and disabled.
Nelson Kid Care
~sends weekend supplemental food home with school children.
The Bridge Ministry, Inc.
~supports Nelson County men seeking rehabilitation from alcohol or drug addiction.
Unity in Community
~provides emergency financial assistance to families in need.
Please get in touch with us if you are interested in learning more about the Nelson County Community Fund. We also welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions.
Nelson County Community Fund
P.O. Box 253
Nellysford, VA 22958