Recovery as a Reflection of Real Life
By PATTI ZIELINSKI
At Montford Hall, teenage boys re-engage with learning in conjunction with substance abuse treatment that gives them experience in the community to practice the new skills they acquire.
Alex Kirby was tired of seeing teenage boys fail. Failing in recovery. Failing at school. Feeling like a failure at life. The veteran wilderness therapist saw a revolving cycle: Boys would start using substances and then enter facilities that often just treated co-occurring conditions with the assumption that if the underlying issues were addressed the problematic substance use would magically disappear. It wouldn’t, and the boys would start using drugs again immediately after returning home. Meanwhile, these otherwise bright teens were falling behind in school and losing their interest in learning.
These teens were giving up. And Kirby wasn’t having it.
Along with his wife, Deb, he began developing a new type of program, one that would provide them with treatment for substance abuse in addition to co-occurring conditions, keep them on track with school and give them structured, deliberate practice re-entering their individual communities, schools and social circles in newfound sobriety.
Today, their vision has been realized in Montford Hall, nestled in the hills of Asheville, North Carolina. Now in its fourth year, this 12-month residential treatment program provides support to 14- to 17-year-old boys with substance use and co-occurring disorders, re-engages them with learning, helps them develop self-advocacy and challenges them to live in the real world, make mistakes and learn from them.
“The younger the child is when he starts using, the more likely that his relationship to substances will evolve into something problematic,” Kirby says. “Plus, it is expected that these kids will enroll in college, but to them, the very thought of transitioning to the next grade level is a nightmare.”
“Some of the students are unable to learn in a traditional academic environment, while others have suffered academically due to their substance use,” he continues. “They are capable, abstract thinkers with high IQs but struggle with the mechanics of absorbing information or getting it out of their brain onto paper. By the time they arrive here, they have developed negative associations with school and limiting beliefs about themselves as students. We seek to change that perspective.”
Montford Hall, which houses up to 19 residents, helps students overcome these obstacles with a year-round academic program designed to support, engage, challenge and inspire them to discover their talents, connect with the course content and understand themselves as learners, all while earning transferrable credits toward high school graduation.
Teachers work with students one-on-one and in small classes — four to five students — that incorporate hands-on learning, problem-solving and student-designed research projects that allow them to think critically, make broader connections and apply their knowledge in personally meaningful ways. Classrooms are infused with humor, innovation, movement and music.
“We recognize that students learn differently — some are more visual learners, while others learn best through listening or doing — and their preferences for their learning environment can vary as well,” Kirby says. “To address the ways they learn best, we offer different options to learn whether it is through small discussions, video, audio, experiential opportunities or art.”
Montford Hall students receive comprehensive assessments to not only show them how they are performing but also to allow them to better understand their talents, the best ways they learn and what sparks their imagination. Students are encouraged to be partners in establishing targets and timelines, assessing their progress, and taking ownership of their studies. The goal is for students to develop the self-knowledge and confidence to advocate for themselves going forward.
At the heart of Montford Hall is a concept Kirby has trademarked “True to Life Recovery.” The program is in a location that closely resembles the places where the teens came from and to which they will return. “We realize that after they leave Montford Hall they re-enter their own worlds with situations that will challenge, tempt and frustrate them, so we allow them to start that process here with the help of our staff and the support of their peers in a therapeutic environment,” Kirby says. “A lot of our programming occurs off campus in the greater Asheville community. This allows students to learn tools for coping, making decisions and regulating moods and then gives them the opportunity to apply these skills in the real world in real time. The students work gradually toward autonomy.”
They also encourage the teens to go into the Asheville community to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and/or Refuge Recovery meetings in the community. “Numerous studies have shown that, even for teenagers, participation in AA and NA can bolster recovery efforts and protect against relapse,” Kirby says. “We seek to introduce our students to this very powerful resource and facilitate their engagement with it to the extent that they feel comfortable.”
Kirby notes the goal is for the teens to leave Montford Hall familiar with the language, philosophy and tools of this program that they may need at some point down the road.
“Some of the people who graduated from our program are celebrating three years of sobriety without continuing with a 12-step program,” he says. “For those who go, it allows them a chance to be off campus and gain a connection with other people. They might hear someone else’s story and realize it sounds a lot like theirs, which starts them thinking that a life without drugs is plausible.”
At first, staff attend meetings with students, but eventually, they are allowed to go alone. Privileges such as this as well as earning cell phone use for a few hours during the day, being allowed to take a part-time job or meeting sponsors in coffeehouses can be earned by repeatedly making good choices. This allows the teens to enjoy appropriate transitional experiences while the staff use their phones to track where they go.
“Allowing cell phones is not typical in most therapeutic settings,” Kirby says. “But today’s society expects people to have cell phones, so it is important for these teens to learn how to use them responsibly while they are still in a safe setting. This allows them to feel normal and connect with family and friends back home in the context of a program that can support them emotionally in a therapeutic community if they get overwhelmed.”
Other than meetings, students are encouraged to pursue various interests in the community, such as playing on local sports teams, taking music lessons and performing, going to skate parks, or hiking. This allows them to use the skills they have learned in the community.
In addition, the staff teach the importance of giving back: Students perform weekly service work, such as mentoring at-risk elementary school students, restoring eroded hiking trails, cleaning stalls at an animal sanctuary or serving meals at an area soup kitchen.
And when the teens are at Montford Hall, they can hang out with the staff members’ dogs. “They are not therapy dogs per se” Kirby says, “but they make Montford Hall a cozier and more lively place thanks to their affection, playfulness, unique personalities, and penchant for mischief.”