Geoff Brewer, Karl Soderstrom, Mike Trudeau, and Damien Tilton, who attended in support of expanding chemical dependency treatment facilities in the Mat Su Valley.

All Photography by Chelsa Paulk

Who wants to live next door to a bunch of drug addicts? The debate following this question has been dogging Valley Oaks, a Bogard Road residential facility for women and children, including pregnant mothers. So far, their potential neighbors’ yeas are vastly outpacing the nays. Set Free Alaska will launch the treatment center in September, with plans for twenty beds. Tuesday’s assembly meeting allowed time for general testimony and was well-attended by locals interested in the success of the project. Although the assembly has no official role, as all legalities have been satisfied and the blessing of North Lakes Community Council granted, the fallout of substance abuse is omnipresent. Solutions are often controversial. According to a report released this week by the McDowell Group, the cost of substance abuse in Alaska is three billion dollars, or $4000 per citizen, per year.

Following the exchanges over preserving salmon habitats, Chickaloon tribal policing, long-awaited borough IT upgrades, and various budget items, April’s regular borough assembly meeting turned to intimate testimonials of addiction and recovery. This facility will serve a population among the most vulnerable —- women and children eligible for Alaska Medicaid.

Philip Licht, CEO of Set Free Alaska, along with Board Chair Thomas Stein, represented the agency. The remaining two dozen voices were supportive homeowners and those who spoke of their own or a family member’s addiction and recovery. Multiple stories of restored families and “breaking the cycle” of dysfunction were offered. A mother who watched her daughter overdose on cocaine, helpless if not for the clinicians trained to aid her in rebuilding her life. Addicts with months of abstinence and those with multiple decades of recovery, all calling for the community to rally around those who would seek shelter at Valley Oaks. Assembly member Dan Mayfield listened judiciously, responding with brief words of affirmation for the experiences shared. A young mother of five related giving birth to a baby who was born addicted, humbly revealing her triumph of being able to stay clean & sober since that time due to engagement with local treatment services.

Names of a few Anchorage inpatient facilities were dropped, as people recounted scouring the available resources fighting for their own or a loved ones’ lives in a moment of willingness. Clitheroe. Akeela. Unspoken but no doubt on the hearts of many in attendance were the names of Alaskans whose drug use enslaved and ultimately killed them: Kellsie Green. Christopher Seaman. A community with countless lesser-known casualties, in search of a way forward.

And there was opposition. Nearby subdivision residents Clark Buswell and Dan Lewis shared their fears about security. Mariah German described herself as “in full support of Set Free’s plans” but wished the notification process to homeowners had gone differently. Licht named that among his regrets but hopes the goodwill established by the trouble-free record of their current outpatient facility would carry some weight. “My property values will go down, if a rehab clinic opens next door,” said Buswell, an assertion which Licht is sympathetic to but says there is no concrete evidence to support.

In a decidedly Libertarian area of Alaska with an overtly Christian streak, Set Free Alaska is a unique match: they provide a faith-based solution for the ailment of addiction, surrounding clients with psychosocial support and steering them towards vocational and family harmony. A longtime youth minister from the Protestant church which originally built the 11-acre Bogard Road facility spoke of the “legacy” she is awed to watch before her. She described Set Free founder Ryan Ray, now grown, as among the kids she trained as evangelists. There’s poignant irony in a campus which began as a church, then housed a charter school (a most modern American symbol of committed parents, idealism and hope for the future), now being returned to serving the raw reality of the Mat Su: women on drugs, having survived years of degradation and trauma, on track for future of more of the same. Their children caught in the crossfire, their own families often absent or addicts themselves. Whose problem is it?

Youth drop-in center MyHouse Director Michelle Overstreet called upon that shared duty, in a convicting 3 minute testimony, “As Alaskans, when we see a fellow Alaskan broken down on the side of the road, you don’t drive by and leave them there. You stop and ask, ‘how can we help?’” Overstreet was careful to counter the misconception of recovering addicts as shiftless losers, citing her own agency’s transitional living quarters which go unnoticed by their neighbors. “When people are rebuilding their lives, they’re focused. Not hanging around causing trouble.” She also offered assurance, in the case of Valley Oaks clients, that their constant on-site supervision will lead to improving local quality of life.

Leaving the state and their families was a necessity for many determined to reclaim their lives from what Karl Soderstrom called “a progressive, fatal illness of the brain.” The co-founder of Fiend2Clean made the case for intensive intervention such as Valley Oaks sparing the public safety, public health and untold costs of an addict on the run: “If we don’t treat individuals we’re going to see a lifetime of using.” Mike Trudeau spoke on his own residential rehab experience, sharing, “I’m grateful for that treatment center. It’s the foundation of my recovery.”

As the meeting broke for recess, Licht and Buswell shared a solemn handshake, brokered by neighbor Marty Kincaid. While Licht acknowledges his goal is ambitious, he restates Set Free’s intention of operating with “one hundred percent support” from surrounding residents.