‘We want to help’: As overdose deaths spike, beds lay empty at long-term Surrey rehab centre

John Volken Academy searching for ‘students’ to enlist in two-year residential treatment program

Surrey’s John Volken built a micro-community within the heart of Surrey that’s run by people recovering from addiction, but what keeps the society’s executive officer awake at night is knowing that, even though the province is seeing a record-breaking number of overdose deaths, the society has dozens of empty beds.

Unlike short-term recovery, the “students” of the John Volken Academy sign up for a two-year residential treatment program. Volken described many of the students as young adults who have tried a number of rehabilitation programs before, but ended up relapsing.

“We have empty beds and we want to help,”Academy chief executive officer Steve Whiteside told Peace Arch News after giving a tour of the facility last month.

SEE ALSO: How COVID-19 has exacerbated the drug overdose emergency

One of the challenges with reaching new students – which comes with a one-time cost of $5,000 – is a lack of communication, Whiteside said, who was careful not to blame any organization or governmental arm for the concern.

“I believe there’s people on the streets who want our services and need them, but they just don’t know about us,” Whiteside said. “If we could work more with all stakeholders together – and again, no one’s fault – but if we could work more with the detox places, work more with government, if we could work more with the 30-day programs…”

Whiteside said it’s not that referral programs won’t send people to the Academy, “It’s just that we don’t have great communication.

“So when I see the overdoses, I just find it extremely sad to see open beds,” he said.

SEE ALSO: The death toll from an increasing toxic drug supply killed 175 people in B.C. in June

After selling his United Furniture Brand in 2004, Volken began purchasing commercial and residential properties near 6911 King George Blvd.

Today, Volken essentially owns the city block, which he transformed into a therapeutic community that gives people who are recovering from drug use a place to play, work, sleep, learn and heal.

Aside from the businesses – where some of the students work– the property includes a library, gymnasium, workout space, theatre, computer room, kitchen, presentation room, medical office, therapy rooms, cafeteria, game room and meditation garden.

Volken and Whiteside said the purpose of the academy was to create an environment designed to give people with addictions the time for their brain to heal itself in the absence of drug use. As the brain is healing, the programs are designed to teach emotional and behaviour self-regulation and important life-skills and a work ethic.

One of the ways they do this, Volken explained, is by introducing stress into the students lives and then giving them an opportunity to discuss it openly in “encounter groups” of up to 20 students.

SEE ALSO: Surrey’s John Volken commits $1 million to British Columbia Centre on Substance Use

“Sometimes encounter groups are pretty basic, pretty boring sometimes,” said Volken, who at times participates in the discussions. “Sometimes they are intense, you feel like you can cut the air into pieces. And there are tears, and there are breakthroughs… The students cry for the first time because their feelings have been numbed over the years.”

What makes the encounter groups different from other group therapies is that after the twice-weekly sessions, students go back to living and working with each other.

“When people are out (on the streets), they’re being judged. And because they’re being judged, they manipulate. They lie about themselves, and that by itself is toxic. Now when they come here, we tell them from day one that keeping secrets keeps you sick. They have to learn to trust each other and they do,” Volken said.

An example of a breakthrough at the encounter group, chairwomen of the Academy’s board of directors Susan Richards de Wit said, was when one of the students asked Volken if he remembered an incident when somebody broke a window at the Academy and stole a number of televisions.

The student confessed to the crime during a encounter group session, and Volken’s reaction was to stand up and give the man a hug.

“Just imagine, bottling up all of the feelings they had about themselves and others. Here, it’s our aim to let go,” Volken said, adding that the students learn to be forgiven, and also to forgive.

The students live in houses or condominiums on the property and work at the PricePro Grocery and Furniture Store. Volken lives in an apartment above the grocery store.

SEE ALSO: Volken addiction treatment centre in Surrey turns ‘takers into givers’

One of the reasons behind a two-year program, Volken said, is that it takes time for the brain to heal.

But it also takes time to teach the tools necessary to handle stress, to provide education and career training.

At the end of the program, students graduate and have the skills to move on. Others, Whiteside said, choose to stay.

Volken’s foundation, which has put more than $80 million into the Surrey academy, is currently building a farm in Langley that is to offer another therapeutic opportunity for the students.

“You know, if all the money we spend, if we just save one life, it would be very frustrating,” Volken said.

“But worth it,” Richards de Wit added.

More information on the academy can be found at volken.org

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