Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Mobtown Beat

Fully Restored

Insie A Whole Women's Recovery House In North Penn

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 8/22/2001

It was 1992 when Vaile Leonard finally bottomed out. Twenty years had passed since a high school friend introduced her to heroin; it had been 10 years since her last dose of methadone. "But it was alcohol," Leonard recalls, "that brought me to my knees." One day, zombied on boilermakers, Leonard, then 42, wandered along the streets of West Baltimore where she grew up. "I got lost, even though I was only four blocks from home. That was when I knew I'd lost my mind," she says.

Today, at 49, Leonard has long since regrouped, having gone from full-time addict to quality engineer at Lucent Technologies. But perhaps a starker measure of her transformation is what she has been doing at the end of her workday during the last year. In June 2000, Leonard opened the Light of Truth Center, a nonprofit recovery house for women in Baltimore's Penn North neighborhood. Since then she has watched three other women reclaim not only sobriety but successful careers and lives much like her own.

The fledgling center is staffed by volunteers and is operating on a shoestring budget made up of donations and the leftovers of Leonard's paycheck from Lucent; it's also operating without a state license, which means that unlike traditional recovery programs, Light of Truth clients don't get substance-abuse treatment, clinical therapy, or services for children. But none of that bothers Leonard, whose mission for Light of Truth is simply to offer recovering female addicts unconditional love and an unwavering commitment to help them become fully restored members of their communities. It's that mission, vs. more standard, medically driven treatment models, that Leonard is banking on for the program to eventually attract additional funding, expand, and persevere.

"I have an overwhelming desire to provide for folk what I didn't feel was provided for me," Leonard says, citing her myriad failed attempts to get clean through recovery programs that stressed only detoxification, not restoration. "There's a saying that you can be clean and crazy [unless] you begin the recovery process--and recovery is to regain, recapture yourself. I wanted women to be able to do that in a loving environment because most of us haven't been loved or haven't been shown love."

In its brief history, Light of Truth has racked up its share of success stories, with some women going on to work in white-collar jobs and even become homeowners. But more importantly, it does its small part to fulfill an urgent need. According to the Washington-based National Institute on Drug Abuse, 48 percent of all Baltimore emergency hospital admissions in 2000 were related to heroin use. And of the nearly 60,000 addicts who sought treatment throughout Maryland in 1999, more than 30 percent were women.

"There's definitely a gap in residential services and emergency shelter for women," Healthcare for the Homeless President Jeff Singer says. "We provide outpatient services, but when people need a place to stay at night, you won't find it."

Pam Talabis, executive director of Baltimore's Dayspring Phoenix House, a nonprofit organization that provides transitional and permanent housing for recovering women and children, says that without stable housing, attempts to get clean often remain just that. "Sometimes women who get evicted or doubled up with relatives wind up residing in environments that are not drug-free and not safe, and that really inhibits the [recovery] process," she says.

Ken Smith, a recovering addict and colleague of Leonard's at Lucent who heads up collections for Light of Truth at the company, puts it more bluntly. "If every waking moment people around you are getting high, you will use. You can get detox or you can go to jail, but short of that, you're going to be in the environment to continue to use," he says. Smith went to college through a program at the Maryland Center for Veterans while he was getting clean, but "there are no programs like that for women," he says. "There's no facilities to help them get back on their feet."

Because Leonard knows this firsthand, she incorporated Light of Truth in 1999, hoping to eventually launch a recovery facility for women. When an uncle died and she inherited his house near North Avenue and Payson Street early last year, she quickly turned the tidy three-bedroom abode with piled carpeting and blooming plants into a four-bed recovery house with an off-site apartment for transitional housing. She welcomed women who came to her by word of mouth, and she bundled hugs with strict house rules. Women who "are serious,"Leonard says, are eligible for a year of residency, and a contract spells out terms for nominal rent (pending the client's ability to pay), curfews, dress codes, mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and shared household chores. In addition to safe housing, Light of Truth offers workshops on hygiene, job skills, and holistic healing therapies.

And while Leonard's center is a far cry from larger, more comprehensive and well-funded facilities, its record, like those of other recovery programs, is one of mixed results. Of the six women who have resided there to date, three have made great strides toward what Leonard terms "restoration," or starting new lives.

Seven years ago, Mae, a nurse who asked that her last name not be used, overcame a 26-year bout with pills and powders and crack cocaine--an addiction that had turned her from a "respectable professional who was in denial" into an unemployed petty thief and prostitute who might admit or deny anything to get high. But while, after two years of homelessness and several trips to emergency rooms (where she "could get off the street and be safe"), a heavy dose of NA and various other recovery programs helped her get clean and return to work as a nurse, she says she still didn't feel whole until she met Leonard in late 1999. "It was around Christmas time, and I was lonely," Mae says, her eyes welling up. "Vaile invited me over. You have no idea what that did for me. For the first time, I felt like somebody cared." Mae rented Light of Truth's transitional apartment while rebuilding her credit, and earlier this year she bought a West Baltimore house one block away from the one she'd lost years ago while drugging. Leonard says two other women who have lived in the apartment have also become homeowners.

Leonard acknowledges, though, that Light of Truth is still "green" in many respects, and not all the recovery house's alumnae have found all that they needed there. "I left because I've got problems with authority," says Shelly Tanner, a recovering heroin addict with bipolar disorder who left the center after just four months to live with a friend. But while the structure and strict rules at Light of Truth--such as the requirement that residents be up and dressed by 9 o'clock each morning--nagged at Tanner, she praises the center for doing what Leonard believes sets it apart from more traditional recovery programs. "I'm still working on my issues," Tanner says, "but I know there was love [t]here."

Such sentiments are what binds the women at Light of Truth who, whatever their current economic status, want to feel whole and full of potential--maybe for the first time ever. "There's a saying that addiction is a disease that's baffling, cunning, and insidious," Leonard says. "But we know there is a flip side. And we are here to follow women all the way there."

Related stories

Mobtown Beat archives

More Stories

Old Habits (7/28/2010)
Medicalization is the hot new thing in drug treatment. Just like in 1970.

Hard Pill to Swallow (6/30/2010)
A Hopkins unit that fought for AIDS patients now fights for its own survival

Single-Payer-Minded (2/3/2010)
Local health-care practitioners explain why they're willing to go to jail in the name of health-care reform

More from Afefe Tyehimba

Here's Looking at You (5/19/2004)
...I've gradually discovered that my heart's got issues when it comes to whatever place I call home.

Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.

Om (5/5/2004)
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter