INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Vero Beach resident George Hamner, Sr. fought two wars successfully in his 86 years. One was WWII against the Japanese.
The other against addiction. In 1973, it was his addiction that had brought him to his knees.
“My alcoholism was dramatically affecting me,” Hamner said. “My actions were leading toward the destruction of my family.”
Hamner has been paying it forward, one day at a time since then, receiving many calls for help over the years. His goal is lofty – to keep quality options for treating various forms of addiction alive in Indian River County.
In Vero Beach, the treatment options for addiction are limited. The disease so often waged in silence – and privately – by families is not the subject of dignified conversations at local charity galas.
Even today, it carries a stigma, one that Hamner – now 36 years sober – and others working with the disease of addition combat daily.
Dr. Wayne Creelman, Eminent Scholar Chair of the University of Florida Center for Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine in Vero Beach, has been in practice more than 30 years.
His office provides clinical services and science based treatment programs, with a focus on education, prevention and early intervention to residents of Vero Beach and the Treasure Coast. He considers AA to be the bedrock for maintaining sobriety.
“By immersing themselves and embracing a 12-step recovery program, an individual is going to use those steps for the rest of their lives if they want to successfully remain sober,” Dr. Creelman said. “That’s why they are not healed, there’s no past tense, no end point. It’s always an active treatment process embraced on a daily basis.”
At the time, the only local treatment center in Vero Beach was Alcohope of the Treasure Coast, which primarily served the indigent population of Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin and Okeechobee counties.
When the Hanley family retired to Vero Beach in the late 90s and toured the rundown facilities, they became the moving force behind bringing affordable private treatment to this area.
The Hanley Family Foundation donated $400,000 of the more than $1.3 million raised for the building, equipping, and staffing of a new 20-bed residential chemical dependency treatment center, built on land leased from a subsidiary of the Indian River Medical Center.
Hanley Hall opened for business April 5, 2005, but almost from the beginning it had financial troubles. It was one of the lowest cost programs in the state of Florida at $7,800 for a 28-day stay, yet as a recession kicked in, few could afford such a price.
Hoping to save Hanley Hall, Hamner obtained a $400,000 unsecured line of credit from a local beachside bank to help with cash flow issues. When Hanley Hall went through a third of that money without much success, Hamner and others worked to have Hanley Center in West Palm Beach take on their existing clients.
Hanley Hall shut its doors in September 2009. But Hamner was undeterred.
“George is not a person who gives up,” said Dr. Barbara Krantz, Hanley Center CEO and Medical Director of Research. “His heart and soul is in the recovery community and he was extremely instrumental in helping us open Gate Lodge Hanley Center of Vero Beach.”
Gate Lodge, housed in the old Hanley Hall building at 3395 11th Court, opened informally in May of this year as an extension of Hanley Center. While focusing on those who relapse, it is a retreat setting open to anyone who needs to immerse in a long-term recovery program.
Their staff locally is headed by Michael Counes, who is the president of Floridians for Recovery, a statewide advocacy group looking to looking to advocate for those suffering from the disease of addiction.
Today, an estimated 25-35 percent of people who complete addiction treatment will be readmitted to treatment within one year, and 50 percent will be readmitted within five years.
Krantz, who has been in practice for more than 30 years, points out that addiction is a brain disease but that the vast public perception is that this is a moral issue.
Gate Lodge Hanley Center costs $4,200 for a 29-day stay. Some scholarships are available for local and state residents.
Moorings resident Tim Cheney is another providing help for those with addictions. At the age of 30, he was lying desperate in an emergency room in New England. A physician, neatly attired in a white coat came to his side and asked, “Is that you Timmy?” He looked up to see his cousin, whom he hadn’t seen in 18 years.
While his cousin had grown up to be a physician at an Ivy League teaching hospital, Cheney was a street junkie and alcoholic.
“A switch tripped in my terrorized soul. I knew that it was over and that if I chose to disregard this last call that my life would be over,” said Cheney.
Cheney went from living in the streets to running a multinational corporation. Today, practically retired, he serves on the board and is a very active participant of the Children’s Home Society of The Treasure Coast. His gratitude to be alive is fueling his latest business venture, Chooper’s Guide.
Choopers is an online resource directory for those suffering from addiction, their families and clinicians. Cheney and his partner, Adrian Hooper, have developed a site, which is easy to use and navigate, as well as comprehensive and accurate.
The majority of existing sites are marketing oriented which makes it very difficult for anyone seeking help to discern fact from sales pitch.
Chooper’s facilitates the process by allowing for apples-to-apples comparisons for services.
“The user can now compare facilities or specialists side by side on our site, in essence apples to apples,” said Cheney.
Cheney says the site, www.choopersguide.com, will be available live online within a few weeks.
While addiction research expands, access is a serious problem. Those without resources are often placed on waiting lists and fall off the radar. Michael Counes said that those in the field continue to work toward giving the addicted a voice.