|Guildhaus executive director Kevin Lavin, under a photo of the halfway house's founder, fireman Jack King.|
One of the best things about being a recovering alcoholic is it makes you more inclined to help others.
Even if you don't particularly want to. Even if you're kinda busy.
Doesn't matter. You have to. Because you know that someone helped you when you needed it. Passing that help along is just basic fairness. So even the most self-absorbed, sorry-not-my-table kind of guy—me for instance—talks to the messed-up drunk who phones out of the blue. Goes to lunch with a stranger and makes the pitch for the hard path.
Or, in this case, drives the 99-mile round trip to sit in Kevin Lavin's office at the Guildhaus in Blue Island to hear his bad news.
"Financially, we're in a very serious position," said Lavin, executive director of the South Side halfway house. "What happened was, we started the new DUI outpatient center, which was a drain. It hasn't come to what we thought it was. That was part of it. Part of it we started falling behind on our taxes ... we were working from loans we borrowed from people. Now we're upside down."
Located in an old bottle factory across from the Cal-Sag Channel, the Guildhaus has beds for 22 residents, plus its addition, Guildhaus II, sleeps 26. It was founded 30 years ago by a retired Chicago firefighter, Jack King. Some 18,000 alcoholics and—increasingly—addicts have gone through the Guildhaus, and if each one dug into his pocket and found $20 their problems would be solved.
Lavin is a former commodities trader—you might remember his story from a couple Thanksgivings ago. After getting sober himself, he quit the world of finance and joined Guildhaus, which runs a residential, 12-step treatment program that requires counselors and therapists, administrators and assistants. All that costs money. Every year, Guildhaus runs about a $200,000 operating deficit. At first, he could pass the hat to his old pals.
"The first year I did it was easy," Lavin said. "The second year you go back to the same guys, it's not so easy."
While I was there, I had dinner with the residents—chicken, creamed corn, bug juice. Hearty, but nobody stays here for the food.
"For me, it's the blend the people, the counselors, the family atmosphere," said Mike. One resident had been through rehab 10 times—it's a struggle even when you have help.
"It was tough, but worth every minute of it," said Fred.
Prudence dictated I call around.
State Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) is on the Guildhaus board.
"They provide a great service in helping people get through their addictions," she said. "They're seen their population move from people with alcohol problems to people with opioid problems. The need is acute. To be in the community, close to where a lot of these guys grew up and live, so they still have family support, is really important at a low time in their lives. There are not a lot of places for people to get quality drug rehab and counseling; it's important to keep centers like this open."
To protect residents, the Guildhaus is unobtrusive. But that hurts when it comes to fund raising.
"Exactly," said State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th).
"One of the reasons for its success is the place keeps a low profile. That's important to people it traditionally serves, who come from law enforcement and other first-responder backgrounds. It was one of the few places where first-responders on the South Side felt comfortable going," Cunningham said.
"There is a long-established sub-culture among first responders that does not lend itself to participate in recovery programs. It's seen a a sign of weakness. A lot of cops and firefighters think that seeking help will be held against them. One of the real services that Guildhaus provides is, it's a trusting environment. I know a lot of constituents who have taken advantage of it," he added.
"His work out in Blue Island has been magnificent," said Jim Sexton, mayor of Evergreen Park. "His work is very good, but it is challenging financially. The state and feds aren't giving anybody anything, so you gotta figure out another way."
That way is astonishingly easy. Go to the Guildhaus web page. Click the big green "Donate to GoFundMe" bar. When I went Thursday, I saw that they had raised $1,400 from eight people over the past month. A start, but not nearly good enough.
We can do better. I swallowed hard and kicked in $100. Anything you can give helps.
"All these guys that've been been through the house," said Lavin. "If they see this in the paper and they see that we're in trouble. We need help to keep this institution going. Because we save lives.