On Deadline: New leader inspires hope for 'Free at Last' rehab program as demand surges
The outlook for the financially challenged "Free at Last" substance and prison rehabilitation program based in East Palo Alto has gotten brighter with the arrival of a dynamic new executive director, Carla Harris.
And the revival of the program is just in time for an expected increase in need due to the new AB 109 prison realignment, parole and probation reform program in California. A third of all those returning from prison or jail to San Mateo County are in the Free at Last immediate service area of East Palo Alto, eastern Menlo Park or southern Redwood City.
"But whoever needs help, that's who we help," Harris says.
The program has been struggling to survive since the shooting death of its co-founder, David Lewis, in June 2010 — a former addict who became nationally known for his work after his personal recovery from alcohol and drug usage. "We have no money," co-founder and board chair Vicki Smothers, who does mental-health outreach for San Mateo County, declared in an interview last September. [www.paloaltoonline.com (See On Deadline column of Sept. 9)].
Harris emerged as the lead candidate following a search that began last August to replace interim CEO Gerardo Barragan. Stanford University's Haas Center helped set up the search.
Harris "hit the ground running" in late March, capping more than 20-years in rehabilitation and support programs, most recently doing domestic-violence work in Alameda County but reaching back to 1990 in prison-rehabilitation and substance-recovery programs.
She immediately began meeting members of the community, exploring potential sources of financial support, and laying the groundwork for a strategic planning process.
"I knew it would be a challenge, but I like to fix things," Harris said of her still-new job in a recent interview.
One of her major fix-it tasks is to change the perception about Free at Last's basic survival as a community-based organization that over the years has helped many hundreds of individuals — men and women, older and younger — reclaim their lives after alcoholism, drug addiction, and jail and prison terms.
"It's sad people feel it is dying. because it isn't. We have created a strategic plan for immediate and long-term solutions. ... My vision for Free at Last is high.
"I knew I would have to hit the ground running," Harris she said of her first weeks on the job. "But I have gained a lot of support. For our immediate needs for the 'transition period,' we're appealing to individuals and to private foundations for general operations and to continue services."
She said additional funds have started coming in, including from some sources that were former supporters but who pulled back due to the uncertainties and confusion following Lewis' death.
The staff now consists of 10 full-time persons and 14 part-time, about half of whom used to be full-time. Restoring their hours and using the staff to increase community outreach is a near-term priority, Harris said.
"The magic of Free at Last is the dedication of the staff — and the people we help," she said.
The core programs include a men's residential facility with 18 beds, a women's residential facility with 14 beds and three transitional houses with 18 beds, plus an open drop-in center and support services such as counseling, job-finding assistance and addiction programs.
"We help people come back to their community, and be employed, part time or in school — so they learn to be self-sufficient."
Benefits of helping individuals become stronger extend to their families and to the communities from which they come, she noted.
There's also a practical realism, cited by Smothers last fall. Creating self-sufficiency and strength keeps people off the streets and away from crime — a benefit both to East Palo Alto and crime-sensitive surrounding communities such as Palo Alto and others.
Because Harris' father was with the U.S. Air Force she was born in Madrid, Spain, spent a couple of early school years in Germany and most of her childhood in New York state. But she was drawn to social work and social causes.
"I have a passion for this work," she said. "My father died of alcoholism at an early age. He was in sales and it didn't feel like a good fit."
One of her first jobs in a prison system, in 1989, "brought up a lot of my own stuff" and left her with a strong drive to help people change and improve their lives.
"My heart is really around social-justice issues, including the core issues involved in social justice, such as racism," she said.
In the 1990s she did substance-abuse treatment in New York state prisons. By 1999 that had evolved into doing "re-entry work" for the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Calif., serving the San Bernardino/Riverside region. For the past three years she has been doing domestic-violence work in Alameda County, a problem closely allied to substance abuse and to re-entry.
The Norco job included one of her greatest challenges: "I had to hire 38 counselors in two weeks" for both a men's program and a women's program.
She initially heard about Free at Last when David Lewis was doing research on a curriculum for an in-prison treatment program, a hybrid of Therapeutic Community, a 12-step treatment model.
She heard about Free at Last's CEO opening on Craig's List in 2011 when she was working in Alameda County.
Now she's looking forward. "Once the staff is back to capacity one of the things I want to do is 'social enterprise' work, to partner with corporations and businesses to create employment opportunities for the people we help —and have that business be in East Palo Alto."
"There is a huge, huge need for (job) opportunities for individuals in this community."
And there's an immediate view: "Free at Last is such a vital, necessary entity in East Palo Alto. I can't imagine East Palo Alto without it," she said.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at email@example.com with a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes biweekly blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).