Expanding Horizons

Enders Island is a sanctuary for young men in recovery who seek their calling in a picturesque New England setting.

Embarking on a life in recovery and discovering a new purpose is daunting. But the most successful journeys are the ones led by a trailblazer, someone who has been there and can provide just enough guidance to stay the course.

Meet Fr. Thomas Hoar, president of the St. Edmund’s Retreat on Enders Island, who for the past quarter-century has been spiritually guiding young people in finding their calling and forging new, sober lives. Named after its location on a serene island off the coast of Connecticut near Mystic, Enders Island Recovery Residence is a post-treatment sober living community for college-aged men that focuses on recovery with an emphasis on education and spiritual growth. The goal is for each young man to thrive academically while in residence and to explore his calling — whether it is attending college, vocational or technical school or entering the workforce.

“We don’t have ‘clients’ or ‘patients’; we have residents — residents who learn to put faith in one another and in a power greater than themselves,” says Hoar, who is also in recovery. “Living a sober life is more than quitting a substance or a behavior; it means living life in a new way.”

Founded in 2006, the residence accommodates up to 12 men aged 18 to 30 who participate in a program grounded in the spiritual principles of the 12 steps and the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. Although spirituality is emphasized, a resident is not required to be religious, says Hoar — just open to exploring the role that spirituality plays in successful recovery.

The minimum stay is three months, but most residents remain for a year. During this time, the young men become part of a community that provides them the necessary foundation upon which to foster their sobriety — and ultimately live a life filled with grace and virtue.

In addition, Enders Island also offers a variety of retreats for men and women in recovery as well as other focuses, which introduce residents to an ever-changing stream of spiritually minded people.

Recovery Campus caught up with the busy Roman Catholic priest to find out more about Enders Island’s unique philosophy and how spirituality plays a role in successful recovery.

Recovery Campus: How did Enders Island become a sanctuary for people in recovery?

Fr. Tom Hoar: We are celebrating 50 years of recovery on Enders Island. The mission started when Fr. Joe Waite started hosting Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings in 1967. This evolved into “11 Step” weekend retreats for men and for women in recovery. When we learned about someone new in recovery, we would invite them to stay with us for a bit. We would help them get to meetings and live a sober life. Then, in the mid-2000s, college friends with sons in their 20s who had addiction issues started calling me. We invited these young men — many of whom I knew — to stay with us. We took them to daily AA meetings, hired tutors, found them employment, enrolled them in community college and had them perform maintenance work on the grounds. They prospered. People heard about our work, and more came to us. Our board of trustees formalized the program in 2006. The residents pay as they can, and we do a lot of fundraising to subsidize the cost.

Fr. Thomas Hoar and Claire St. Clair, the finance manager at Enders Island.

RC: You place a strong emphasis on education.

TH: I want the residents to learn how to read, write and reason. No matter what they eventually go on to do, those skills will be necessary. Most attend college, but, for example, one of our former residents went to a trade school and is now the proud owner of an HVAC company. If they attend a trade school, I want them to understand financial management. We provide tutoring in reading, writing and math. We also help them secure internships in places where we have connections.

When you’re in addiction, your world gets small. We try to show them different things. We encourage them to take classes at Three Rivers Community College and invite them on trips to museums, symphonies and Broadway shows to expand their appreciation of culture. We have classes in table manners and teach them how to eat at a business lunch. Residents eat in our community dining room along with people who are here on private retreat, so they may find themselves at the table with an archbishop, housewife, Lutheran minister, doctor or cancer survivor. Because people come annually for retreats, they get to know the residents. This provides an environment where young men can interact and talk naturally with a variety of individuals who live a rich interior life.

RC: How do you assist with helping residents transition to college?

TH: Some want to return to the schools they left, but we try to dissuade them. Statistics show people in recovery have better success if they do not go back to a previous environment. I take them to schools that they are interested in that have collegiate recovery programs and help them with the admission process. Because programs differ from school to school, we help match the student with the right program that suits his needs. Over the years, we have helped place students in Alabama, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont — in addition to helping them find recovery scholarships.

Shawn Robinson, residence director of recovery.

RC: How does spirituality play a role in your community?

TH: Most residents come in as agnostics; they don’t have a real relationship with God. These young men might not want to go to a religious place, but Enders Island is not what they think it is. They discover they like it.

Because the 12 steps is a spiritual program, you have to nurture a relationship with God. During my years of sobriety, I’ve learned that the people who have the longest life in recovery are those with a spiritual life. “God” is used throughout the steps; 10 of them talk specifically about God. The second step says that I believe in a power greater than myself. “Higher power” is a theory. You can’t have a relationship with a theory. You have to come to grips with a relationship with a personal god. It doesn’t have to be the Catholic God.

That said, I take the young men to Mass. I tell them: “I don’t care if you believe. Just listen.”

The 11th step says, “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.” With that in mind, the young men benefit from hanging around with people who are praying and meditating.

RC: Describe a typical day.

TH: The day starts with breakfast and Mass. Then, residents will go to tutoring or a class at the community college. They might also work in our prized dahlia gardens, at a local community food bank and wellness center, or participate in volunteer internships at the Mystic Aquarium.

After the young men are here a while, they can have a part-time job in an approved place. We have lunch together. They also attend one-on-one or two-on-one relapse classes and classes on human relationships. Everyone attends an AA or Narcotics Anonymous meeting and sees a therapist once a week. Residents have sponsors, mentors and tutors.

We encourage them to discover their passions through volunteering on the island or joining us on cultural outings. In their free time, they pursue activities such as horseback riding, taking golf lessons, practicing judo or playing on sports teams.

Although the minimum stay is three months, we try to get them to stay the year. When you’re relearning how to live in sobriety, 28 days doesn’t cut it. Even 60 days doesn’t cut it.

RC: How do you involve families?

TH: Parents visit as they can and come to special events such as our big Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. They can attend our black-tie fundraising dinner in which the guys come in tuxedos. We also help parents with the Al-Anon process and involve them in college visits.

RC: Tell us more about your vibrant island community. 

TH: We offer a variety of retreats. They are not just for recovery. We have retreats for men and women, priests and ministers of all denominations as well as couples and young people. For example, Rutgers University’s collegiate recovery community (CRC) comes on a retreat every year before school starts, and Fairfield University’s CRC comes twice a year.

In addition, we hold workshops in sacred art: calligraphy, iconography, manuscript illumination, Gregorian chants, stained glass, mosaics and frescos. And, of course, we have the Sunday community that comes to worship at Mass.

They also interact with the residents, which helps fight against isolation. This gives them a healthy community in which to develop their sobriety, and recovery can give them a broader perspective.

Written by Patti Zielinski

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