NEWTON â€” The philosophy behind a new $80-million addiction recovery centre in Surrey is best summed up in three words. As it says on the front of the building, â€˜We Change Lives.â€
Beaming from ear to ear throughout the day, founder John Volken officially opened the academy in Surrey on Friday (April 24), and to help him kick things off was celebrated philosopher Deepak Chopra, an alternative medicine advocate, author and promoter of spirituality.
The John Volken Academy utilizes a â€œtherapeutic communityâ€ approach to recovery, explained Volken. The people in the program, also known as a â€œlife skills academy,â€ work in the Price Pro store and live in the homes adjacent to it.
Volken grew up in an orphanage and immigrated to Canada from Germany at the age of 18. As a dishwasher, farm labourer and construction worker, he rose from rags to riches.
He found his passion in sales and business, opened a secondhand furniture store in 1981 and from there built it into United Furniture Warehouse, a large chain in North America with 148 locations.
Being financially set, Volken decided he wanted to give back.
After researching areas of social hardship, he discovered there was a need for long-term residential-based treatment facilities.
In 2004, he sold his business to begin a new adventure in life: the Welcome Home Society, now the John Volken Academy.
The concept is that students are not patients, but part of a family, and that it takes a long time for an addict to overcome an addiction, taking more than just talk to change life patterns.
The two-year program is about life-long sobriety, says Volken.
Back in 2009, there were 16 students in the program. Today there are roughly 40, and the new building has room to house some 150 people.
Jonquil Hallgate, executive director of the Surrey Urban Mission in Whalley, was pleased with what she saw at the recovery centre.
â€œItâ€™s a wonderful example of what somebody whoâ€™s in business can create to help address social issues. Itâ€™s a great example of a place that has dignity and respect. Itâ€™s a lovely building, itâ€™s big, itâ€™s spacious,â€ she said.
Hallgate would like to see more of this model of recovery centres in Surrey, not the â€œflop houses,â€ of which there are many in the city.
â€œI think that it continues to perpetrate the myths about people who are living with addiction challenges or people who are homeless,â€ she said of unethical recovery homes. â€œIf we an see facilities like this, with programs that are ethical, where people are actually having opportunities to move forward and to develop competency and capacity in their life, that people on the outside looking in will start to see it differently.â€
Former city councillor Marvin Hunt, now Liberal MLA for Surrey-Panorama, has supported the Volken project since the beginning, when he toured one of the organizationâ€™s recovery homes years ago.
â€œWe do that as councillors, and I saw the work, the commitment, the program and I was excited because these are ones that are actually making a difference,â€ said Hunt at the opening.
The first one he saw was in Newton.
â€œIt was kind of funny when the Newton residents were coming to the public hearing so opposed to this, it was like, I should keep my mouth shut, because there were already three. And they didnâ€™t know of any of them.â€
Hunt said back then, the opposition was to do with fear.
In 2009, the first phase of Welcome Home was approved by Surrey council despite stiff opposition from residents.
At the time, residents said they already had their fair share of such things, and some opposed the project because of its size and feared its clients, some who would be there under a court order, would cause trouble in the neighbourhood.
That first phase (36 units) was passed in October 2009, with only then mayor Dianne Watts and councillor Bob Bose voting against it.
â€œIt was the fear of the possibility of this being a magnet,â€ said Hunt. â€œWe can look at things like the Front Room and see that the front room is sort of a magnet for drugs and those sorts of things. So that was the fear. And itâ€™s a legitimate fear that every neighbourhood has when youâ€™re dealing with something to do with recovery â€“ whatâ€™s actually going on, whoâ€™s going to show up at 3 oâ€™clock in the morning, all those kinds of fears.â€
To be standing in the completed facility years later, Hunt said it was â€œgratifying.â€
â€œWell letâ€™s be honest, Johnâ€™s done a great job and itâ€™s wonderful when you have a patron that has the resources to be able to make the program work and to be able to give the infrastructure behind programs. Programs rise and fall, and can do good, but if you donâ€™t have the resources behind it, itâ€™s going to fail. And thatâ€™s one of the challenges and thatâ€™s the beauty of this. When you have the resources behind it, then you can actually get something done.â€
Hunt said there are plenty of so-called â€œrecovery homesâ€ in the city, but they are essentially flop houses.
â€œTheyâ€™re places for people on drugs to hang out,â€ he added. â€œTheyâ€™re not recovery houses but they get given that name. This is the real deal.â€
Dr. Chopra, who was described as a â€œcontroversial New-Age guruâ€ by the New York Times, praised Volkenâ€™s holistic approach to recovery, which takes into account not only the physical body, but the spiritual and emotional states as well.
â€œOnce youâ€™ve created this environment, then you have to bring about all the moralities that will trigger both healing and transformation into not only recovery from addictive states, but who wants to recover from an addiction to go out into that insane world out there. What we call normal today is an insane civilization,â€ he said to the crowd.
â€œWe have created climate change, weâ€™ve caused the extinction of species, weâ€™ve destroyed the ecosystem, we have 50 per cent of the world living on less than $2 a dayâ€¦ we have war, we have terrorism, we have beheadings, and we call that normal. Itâ€™s an insane asylum. Itâ€™s the psychopathology of the average which we take for granted. Recovery, and this is my hope, is to first get out of that clouded stateâ€¦ but then step into the insanity and say what am I going to do about the insanity. In my personal transformation, let there be a healing of the world, let there be healing of our communities, of our traumatized families, of our countries, of the state of the world, of the ecosystem.
â€œCan we participate in the creation of a more peaceful, just, sustainable, healthy, happy world? This was given to us and weâ€™ve desecrated it. So I congratulate you, once again John, for this wonderful place that you have. Iâ€™m happy to offer my help to you and to others. But I think we need to take recover to a level of higher consciousness. To a level where love and compassion and joy and service and meaning and purpose become the normâ€¦. I think we could save ourselves and we could save the world.â€
The Volken Academy is located at 6911 King George Blvd. For more information visit Volken.org.
-With a file from Ted Colley