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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: Reclaim Project helps steer men away from the ‘lion’s den’ of addiction

It’s a sunny autumn afternoon, and Lucas Torresdal is using a small chainsaw to trim away limbs and trunks from invasive elms clustered around a power pole in a vacant lot in the Spokane Valley.

“Hold on!” hollers Chris Bertram, manager of the small work crew, as he steps forward and pulls away limbs and branches. “Cut this one right here.”

Torresdal touches the chainsaw to the limb and down it comes.

“Perfect,” Bertram says.

Bertram leads the Reclaim Project’s Spokane Valley crew, which was clearing invasive saplings from a vacant lot between Sprague and Appleway last week as part of a municipal contract. He’s trying to teach more than how to use a chainsaw, however; he and the crew members are working to stay sober and change their lives for the better.

Clearing out the elms is a part of that. So is the other work the crew does for the city of Spokane Valley, from snow removal to cleaning up the remains of homeless camps. So is the work done by the Reclaim Project’s other construction crews, from building decks to remodeling apartments. So are the regular classes and coaching focused on helping men stay off drugs and alcohol, and the sober living houses spread across the city, and the yoga sessions and weight training at the project’s offices on West Broadway Avenue.

The Reclaim Project offers a unique combination of services to help men whose addictions have led them into incarceration and homelessness. The project combines housing, jobs and job training, recovery services and a supportive social network to help men reshape their lives, and it’s expanding from Spokane into the Spokane Valley.

“I’m absolutely convinced the program saved my life,” said Bertram, a 53-year-old who’s been in the project for four years. “If I’d have had a program like this at these guys’ age, I would have never gone to prison.”

Bertram cites his 30-year heroin addiction as the underlying reason for his incarceration – and “not once or twice.” The men on his crew had also been in jail or prison, or emerging from inpatient addiction treatment as part of an alternative criminal sentence and found themselves returning to life outside the system without anywhere to go or any resources to get their lives in order. Most have been homeless at some point, sometimes following a release from jail or prison.

“DOC releases you with $40 and a bus ticket,” Bertram said.

Torresdal, who was wielding the chainsaw, has been living in one of the program’s sober houses since he was released from inpatient treatment for methamphetamine and fentanyl addiction in February.

A 29-year-old from Issaquah, Washington, he said the combination of housing, a paying job and supportive program leadership – as well as living away from old friends and bad influences on the West Side – is helping him finally make a change.

“It’s the longest I’ve been sober in my life,” he said.

‘Uniquely woven’

The key feature of Project Reclaim is its “a la carte” menu of services, which allows each individual to take what works best for him, project co-founder Shawn Kingsbury said. It combines levels of accountability – with drug testing and some requirements for attending meetings – with coaching and mentoring that allow each man a degree of agency in designing their recovery.

“I’m a big believer that every addiction is uniquely woven, and so every addiction has to be uniquely unwoven,” he said.

The project has four main elements:

• Pura Vida Sober Living, which has 29 homes with about 140 men living in them throughout Spokane.

• Revival General Contracting, a licensed and bonded contracting company that gives about 35 men work and teaches them job skills.

• Reclaim Project Recovery, a nonprofit that offers recovery classes as well as other “positive, life-affirming” activities such as yoga, weight training and life skills.

• A retail wing including a used furniture store, firewood and wood reclamation enterprise, and a planned thrift store in the Valley.

Kingsbury grew up in Spokane, and he lived through the same struggles as the men he helps now.

“That’s really where I’ve been called to serve,” he said. “I had an 18-year alcohol and drug addiction. It was pretty horrific. I was definitely knocking on death’s door.”

He said he built his own recovery plan, based on physical activity and other factors.

“I like to say I rewired my brain away from addiction,” he said.

Growing up in a construction family, he saw work as a way to help give men in recovery a chance to learn the skills to get a job. The seeds of the project were the sober homes through Spokane, starting several years ago; the construction company, which is licensed and bonded, came around four years ago, along with the other activities.

Kingsbury founded the project with Aaron Allen; Kenny Carlson is the chaplain and executive director of the nonprofit side of the operation.

Carlson said the wide range of offerings sets Project Reclaim apart.

“There are a lot of programs out there, but they usually only do one of those things,” he said.

As the project has grown, and formed relationships with corrections officials and rehab centers, more and more people are directed their way, he said. They now have a waiting list of about 25 for the housing program.

“They’re calling us – ‘Hey, we have these guys. Hey, we have these guys,’ ” he said. “We don’t have enough beds.”

The city of Spokane Valley began contracting for work-crew services with the project more than a year ago, after it lost access to work crews that had been provided by Geiger Corrections Center. City Manager John Hohman said Reclaim Project quickly proved itself a reliable, responsible contractor, helping clear weeds and litter during the warmer months and doing snow removal in the winter.

“They’re doing a fantastic job,” Hohman said. “They’re making multiple passes through the city, keeping the weed growth to a minimum. I think the city looks great.”

Spokane Valley has a one-year, $250,000 contract with the project for that work. Additionally, when the Spokane Valley City Council was distributing federal American Rescue Plan funding to address homelessness and addiction issues in June, council members enthusiastically supported the project’s model of providing a supportive, accountable pathway for men struggling to overcome addiction – not just a shelter bed, but a way to make concrete change in people’s lives, Deputy City Manager Erik Lamb said.

The council awarded Project Reclaim $1.4 million out of $4 million in grants to address homeless and addiction recovery.

The funding will be used to create a new “home base” for the project, bringing the combination of housing and services that are offered in the city of Spokane to the Valley, Kingsbury said.

“If we don’t do something for those people and put them on a productive path,” Councilman Rod Higgins said at the time of the award, “then we’re making a set of new homeless people.”

‘Early recovery sucks’

Early one recent morning, Kingsbury sat before a group of men talking about the challenges of staying sober in the early days of recovery.

“Are you still in that ‘having trouble sleeping’ phase?” he asked. “I hear ya.”

About 25 men attended the class, held at Reclaim Project’s central building on West Broadway Avenue. A couple of dogs roamed among the seats. Kingsbury asked the men questions about their lives. What were they paying attention to? What was going well? What were they struggling with?

One man talked about discord with his ex-wife. Another talked about being excited to connect with his daughter. One talked about making progress on paying off his court fees, and one said he’d been sentenced to weekends in jail as part of his diversion program.

They talked about lion’s dens – places in their lives where the risk of relapsing was high. The program holds members accountable, though Kingsbury said relapsing is an expected part of recovery. Not everyone makes it through, but it’s not a one-strike situation.

“We give second and third chances,” he said . “If an individual relapses but they want sobriety … then I can work with that.”

During class, Kingsbury talks to the men about “creating a life worth not losing,” by steadily, patiently accumulating victories.

“It’s going to be scary,” he said. “It’s tough. I say it all the time: Early recovery sucks.”

The men murmur in agreement.

“All right – who’s doing yoga today?” Kingsbury said.

‘Not alone anymore’

The men in the program talk about how valuable it is to have a community of others sharing the same journey, and how much support they receive from the project’s leadership.

“The guys that run this place , they have your back,” said Gregory Brickner, 29. “As long as you show you want it.”

Brickner grew up in Spokane and dropped out of Rogers High School. For several years, he spent his days stealing to feed his meth and fentanyl addiction, and going through periods of homelessness.

He’s working his way through a county Drug Court diversion program – which allows defendants to avoid jail through a treatment regimen – and has been sober for two years.

“Drug Court gave me my life back,” he said, “but so did Pura Vida.”

Chris Harless, one of the men clearing elms in the Valley last week, was diverted into inpatient substance abuse treatment following an arrest in Chehalis, Washington. He was released into a Pura Vida home in June.

“I didn’t have any place to go at all,” he said. “I was going to be homeless.”

He’d been drinking since he was 15 years old. Sunday marks a year of sobriety.

“Now that I’m around other people who are sober and who have similar stories, I’m not feeling alone anymore,” he said.