A warm welcome

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  • Monday, March 3, 2008 6:44am

By Brooke Fisher

Enterprise editor

LAKE FOREST PARK — Although the Welcome Home Society blends into other homes by day, at night the house stands out.

All the lights are always on.

“Because they used to hide in the dark,” program director Ken Pfaff said, “I turn all the lights on.”

The local branch of the Welcome Home Society has been open for two years and is located in a house in the 18400 block of Ballinger Way NE.

The society is home to former drug users and alcoholics, called “students.” Many used to be homeless and most are not used to having a typical family atmosphere, complete with an upscale house, clothing, food and job security.

“They come from places we couldn’t even imagine,” Pfaff said. “A good family structure is alien in many ways to them.”

Students must commit to staying in the program for a minimum of two years before graduating. When they do leave, students have a job, savings account and apartment.

“People come by and say ‘this is not a drug rehabilitation program,’” Pfaff said. “They are used to the little shack.”

A new lifestyle

Living at Welcome Home Society, students learn a new lifestyle and some will never reconnect back with their families. Five students live at the house, although it can hold up to nine men. Pfaff is the only live-in staff.

Daily life for students is consistent: They work 40 hours per week, attend AA meetings, go to church services and socially interact through bowling, bike rides and ice-cream socials.

“All of these things merge together to make it a real home,” Pfaff said. “It is a real community where they are held responsible.”

The intake policy stipulates that Welcome Home society will not accept people with strong criminal backgrounds, including arson or rape. When a candidate is found, their background is checked to make sure they don’t have a strong criminal history other than drug use. Finding people who are ready to commit to the program can be challenging, Pfaff said.

“There is a very narrow bandwidth of people who are ready and remotely motivated,” Pfaff said. “That is what we are looking for: ready and motivated.”

Ed Diluck is the organization’s chief executive officer. He visits other treatment programs to recruit students, letting them know that Welcome Home Society is a resource that is different from other short-term programs.

The philosophy is different than other programs, Diluck said, because staff ensure the students are employable when they leave and ready to be on their own. Those who have not completed high school are encouraged to obtain their GED certificate at classes at Shoreline Community College.

“Our program is a different type of approach,” Diluck said. “We get people ready for life.”

Three stages of progress

There are no counselors at Welcome Home Society, but simply staff members who help guide students through the three stages of the program: freshman, junior and senior. The freshman stage is the most difficult, Pfaff said, as it is the time when students are most likely to resort back to drug and alcohol use.

Although they see mostly success stories, Pfaff said that on occasion, students with the best of intentions are not yet ready for the commitment and end up leaving.

“The first six months is the worst,” Pfaff said. “After the first six months, they will be here for the rest of the time.”

With each stage of the program, students are granted more liberties, based on their individual progress. To help identify which stage they are in, students wear colored polo shirts: freshman wear green, juniors wear blue and seniors wear red shirts.

For the first 30 days, freshman students are not allowed any outside contact and are required to have escorts. Students are allowed to have visitors, either family members or friends, as long as they are positive influences. Upon becoming juniors, students are allowed to visit various places by themselves, but only for a specified amount of time. When they reach the senior stage, students are allowed more independence, including the option to travel by themselves.

Students are not allowed to have cars. Most ride the bus to work, and for group outings they travel by van.

If students break the “cardinal rules,” including no drugs, alcohol and violence, they are automatically expelled. However, other street-mentality related problems, such as stealing, does not necessarily necessitate eviction, so long as the issue is resolved.

Privately funded

Although the Lake Forest Park home only houses men at this point, typically between the ages of 19-40, it will eventually expand to accept women. Staff are even considering purchasing another home next to the existing location.

The society is not state licensed and is privately funded by John Volken, owner of United Furniture Warehouses, who envisioned a treatment facility with a family atmosphere. To see his vision come to fruition, Volken sold most of his 150 United Furniture Warehouses and established the John Volken Foundation and Welcome Home Societies.

“He sold about 95-99 percent of them, for the specific and only purpose to open Welcome Homes,” Pfaff said about Volken.

The first Welcome Home was a small house in Canada, which is now at capacity and has a waiting list. Funded by sales from a Liquidation Outlet, which was established to specifically fund the house, it will be moving to a larger facility in Surrey, Canada, which will house 500 students.

The Lake Forest Park house is the first Welcome Home established in the United States, and it is funded primarily by a Liquidation Outlet in North Seattle. Proceeds from the store pay for clothes, food and housing. Donations are also accepted from supporting businesses and community members.

Once a waiting list is secured, Pfaff said they will build a facility for about 50 people in Seattle, as Volken’s dream is to build a campus in every city where there is a need, using the Canada and Lake Forest Park homes as models.

“We are making a model of real life and giving them the opportunity to practice those skills,” Pfaff said. “What they put into it is what they get out of it.”

The store

The Welcome Home Liquidation Outlet is what the students call a “job training center.” Most students work at the store 40 hours per week.

“Every penny goes to them,” Pfaff said. “It is a communal effort.”

Students’ work pays for their stay, and they learn skills such as sales, warehousing and customer service. Students are not paid employees and if they have outbursts they are not fired from work unless they return to drug and alcohol use.

All items for sale at the store are new, not donated. Furniture and other items, including food, are sold.

“If you go there and buy $1.89 milk, you actually volunteered yourself,” Pfaff said. “You changed someone’s life by keeping the lights running; it gives a guy a chance.”

In the spirit of work therapy, students are also involved in remodel projects around the house, including fixing up the basement and demolishing a cottage behind the house, which they will rebuild. Students are encouraged to do landscaping projects and house repairs.

Scott’s success

Scott Bilges, 39, is a senior in the Welcome Home Society and has lived at the house for two years. He will soon be the first person to graduate from the local chapter. Although students are not required to work for Welcome Home-affiliated stores after they graduate, Bilges will be relocating to Mount Vernon to train as a manager of a United Furniture Warehouse store.

He is currently in a transition period and although still living at the house, he is saving up money to pay for his own apartment in Mount Vernon.

“Scott will be a manager, but before he was picking fruit in the fields,” Pfaff said. “He wasn’t capable of anything else except using drugs and alcohol; he made that change.”

Before committing to the Welcome Home Society, Bilges completed a shorter rehabilitation program offered through the Salvation Army. Before entering the program, he lived in Kentucky with his then-wife, but decided he needed to make a change after becoming involved with marijuana and alcohol and being verbally abusive.

“I didn’t give a damn about life; I was married and didn’t give a damn about anything like that,” Scott said. “So I stepped up to the plate and said ‘I’ve got to go, got to leave because I felt there was something that was going to happen.’”

Bilges grew up in foster care after his parents divorced when he was 5 years old. His father also was an alcoholic.

“I am excited inside about leaving, although I probably don’t show it,” Bilges said. “But when I get to Mount Vernon, I will have made it.”

Robert’s recovery

Robert, who preferred not to give his last name, is a junior in the program and has lived at Welcome Home Society for about six months. Robert, 45, came from Oakland, Calif., where he was married, worked as a baker, owned a $350,000 home and was clean and sober for 12 years.

“One day I started doubting my relationship with my wife and went back to the stinking thinking in my head and what was comfortable – drugs and alcohol.” Robert said. “Within four months I was out on the street, jobless and separated from my wife; I lost my house.”

Robert then traveled to Oak Harbor, Wash., to live with his mother. While looking for a job on the Internet, he noticed an advertisement for a food service worker at Welcome Home Society.

“I called them up and I guess you could say the rest is history from there,” Robert said. “I am getting my mental, physical and spiritual self back together, one step at a time and one day at a time.”

When he graduates from the program in 1 1/2 years, Robert hopes to work with a church in a recovery-type ministry to help drug addicts and alcoholics. Without the program, Robert does not think he would have survived.

“This is a program where we take what we learn and put it into our outside lives; we build that foundation rock-solid here,” Robert said, “to have something to stand on for the rest of our lives.”

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