The Life Center Foundation is all about hope. So is Bill Irby, director of this life changing program that serves as “a bridge to a new life” for men and women grappling with the devastating effects of substance abuse. Irby’s mission is to move them from dependency to productivity within the community.
Life Center Foundation is a non-profit residential and an outpatient recovery program that offers a chance at recovery rather than incarceration. Tucked away on a tree-lined street in South Clarksville, the program is housed in a large sprawling home with a rambling porch. It’s a quiet place where residents live, usually for six to 18 months. Individuals are referred to the program through local court systems; these clients are often homeless victims of alcohol, drugs, and bad choices who have arrived at a crossroads: jail or recovery. The key to the recovery option is a strong desire to learn and acquire the skills needed to make new, different, self-sustaining and productive choices. That’s where the camaraderie, support, fellowship and Bill Irby come into play.
Irby runs a strict program that requires participants to have a true desire to turn their lives around. What tips the scales in their favor are the structure and the tools Irby provides that can help make that change not only happen but become entrenched.
“This program requires participants to take responsibility for their lives,” Irby said. “They become ’employable’ and end employed in a clean and sober environment.”
Irby, a Clarksville native and the founder and executive director of Life Center Foundation, graduated from Clarksville in 1958 and attended the University of Tennessee. He moved to Florida in the 80s and established the Life Center Foundation there. Years later and after significant success in the Florida Keys, at the request of former District Attorney Pat McCutchen, Irby duplicated the program in Clarksville.
In writing a letter of support for this program, State Representative Joe Pitts said “the fabric of our community, state and nation is weakened when people who have fallen victim to alcohol and drug addiction are unable to access services. Life Center has taken a unique approach by providing a community-based recovery facility for those men and women who desire to become productive citizens again.”
Life Center Foundation residents are expected to work at paying jobs if they are able, attend of hefty schedule of 12-Step meetings, and be active participants in their own recovery.
“They have to do it,” Irby, himself a recovering alcoholic, said. “I can help them find and use the tools, but ultimately it is up to them to work this program.” Moving people in an out of jail is an endless cycle; Life Center breaks the cycle by changes the physical and behavioral factors that lead to recidivism. In addition to the daily 12-Step programs, Life Center residents are required to attend church services at the congregation of their choice, a part of what Bill Irby calls “changing the playground and the playmates.”
Mindy (seen at left straightening up her room) has been a resident for several months, staying clean and sober after a lengthy addiction of pain killings drugs taken for a back injury. She was a dental technician and hopes to return to that field in the future. He quest for a new life post-addiction hit a new hurdle in December with the diagnosis of a brain tumor. She speaks calmly of her struggle and this new concern, all the while holding tight to the idea of establishing a new life without addicting drugs. It will, she admits, be a challenge if she must integrate cancer treatment or brain surgery to her recovery from addicting drugs.
Mindy occupies one of the 16 beds in the house. It’s not fancy; clients share rooms, share chores, and share in the mutual support each needs to sustain the ongoing change. That change comes as clients move through the program, meeting requirements that are much more strict at the onset, with privileges and trust as something to be earned. Failure to follow the rules results in dismissal from the program. Work or job training/education is one of the requirements.
“We are required to keep notebooks, tapes or other things that document our concerns, our feelings, and the “random acts of kindness”we are expected to do here.We are expected to connect with our sponsors every day, and 12-Step meetings are held at noon, 6 p.m. and 8 pm.” Like every other client, Mindy has her share of kitchen duty — both oooking and clean-up.
Clients are expected to keep their beds made, their clothes laundered, and the environment neat. They are expected to dress appropriately, refrain from profanity and bad language, sign in and out, maintain a positive and cordial attitude toward other residents, and maintain a log of meetings attended. Teleivision time is limited and program content is restrict: no violence or profanity. It’s cramped quarters which makes a strict set of guidelines and strong organization critical to Life Center management.
Sustaining the program remains a challenge for Irby; the house is older and getting older, in need of weatherization, new windows, new tiles and carpet, and a number of bigger ticket items including a computer(s) . The uneven floors from room to room need to be leveled and the carpeting is thready in many places. Irby is seeking grants to address many of the maintenance/repair issues of the house.
Irby admits the house is showing is age and its years of heavy use and one of his biggest priorities is to acquire funds to upgrade, repair and weatherproof to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy costs.
The kitchen is an eclectic collection of chairs and tables where residents gather for meals or cups of coffee. The pantry is overflowing, though, with the staples of good meals, an abundance of breakfast cereals, and the ever present and continually flowing pot of coffee.
Jerry, an older longtime resident of Life Center, and at six years of tenancy is the center’s longest resident, is legally blind; he moves about the house with a white cane. He does yard word at his own pace and copes with other health issues as well. The extended family at Life Center takes care of him and he does as much in return. Yard work is healthy,” Irby said, and Jerry added that he loves being outdoors and working at his own pace to sustain the property.
“This is my home,” Jerry said. “I love being here. I have friends here.” At retirement age now, he is dependent on the nurturing structure of the program. “You can’t be lonely here.”
“We actually have two blind people here,” Irby said. “These are folks most programs would not take.” At one point, Irby had lines strung around the house for these clients to use in navigating from room to room. Both know the house now, but it is evidence of the care Irby has for his people that he will take on challenges and be innovative in meeting special needs.
While a few have been long term residents, most Life Center participants are there “to get ready for real life, for the real world.”
What makes Life Center work?
“Commitment, ” Irby said, speaking for himself and his people. We don’t tolerate fights, we require mutual respect, and we mandate participation in all the required elements of the program. The program works only if the client is an active and willing participant. They have to want a life change.” Irby runs a zero tolerance program, and is never surprised if a client falls off the path and back into old patterns of substance abuse. They can’t stay in the program until they have recommitted to being alcoholic- and drug- free.
The 12-Step programs required are not just a format for Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous; they are standards to guide life, guidelines to assess and admit what has happened, to make amends for it, and to sustain one’s self and others with gratitude and support.
Irby adds to that what he calls “The Absolutes:” Honesty. Unselfishness. Love. Purity.
For clients, the hardest step in recovery is confronting their own addiction, admitting it, and admitting a heartfelt desire for change. For some, it is literally a life and death choice, since there is no good outcome to substance abuse.
When a character in a recent film felt cornered by a seemingly impossible life/death choice, she summed up the issue succinctly with tears and three simple words: “I chose life.”
Life is that Bill Irby and the Life Center Foundation have to offer.