Wayne Keys flipped open his cell phone while walking through a hallway in the former Mother of Sorrows Catholic High School building, in an area where tenants made a makeshift movie theater with old coaches and sofas in front of a projection screen.
“Yes, we do offer recovery services, but not for women. It’s men only here,” Keys said into the phone. “But if you can wait just a bit, I’ll get you some numbers for women services, OK?”
The 29-year-old former Army Ranger takes five other similar phone calls during an hour-long tour of Affordable Recovery’s Blue Island facility at 13811 S. Western Ave. As the central intake coordinator, Keys will often take over 100 phone calls a day, six days a week.
“I remember where I was,” Keys said, when asked why he’ll still take time to help the woman, though she doesn’t fit as an Affordable client. “I was alone, people had turned their back on me, and they were right for doing so. I put people in my life in pain. I don’t want to feel like that anymore, and I don’t want anyone else to feel like that anymore.”
Keys is two-and-a-half years into recovery himself, having become an addict after returning from fighting in Afghanistan. Most of the people working at Affordable Recovery going are also working on their own recovery as well. The idea for the organization came when the founders, struggling with their own addictions, became frustrated with what they felt was too much pressure at rehab facilities.
“Most recovery provides a bed, a room and structure, but if you don’t have a job within about three weeks to a month, you might be homeless again,” said John Dunleavy, CEO and one of the founders of Affordable Recovery. “What that does it builds up too much stress and people can’t focus on what they are there for. We provide everything including training and a job at the end. And now they can focus more on recovery.”
Affordable Recovery combines a strict regiment of drug and alcohol treatment, where clients must attend a meeting or counseling session nearly every day of the week, along with an array of vocational training. Men who enter Affordable Recovery can learn construction, fixing and rebuilding machinery, culinary, carpentry, drywall, electrical and others. If an area restaurant simply needs someone to clean the range hoods, they could train for that, Dunleavy said.
“There are not enough small engine repair programs, where people can repair lawnmowers, snowblowers,” Dunleavy said. “Very few shops do that, and every community needs a small repair shop. Our goal is to teach this.”
Affordable also provides transportation to and from jobs, and holds Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in-house at Mother of Sorrows, where Affordable Recovery has have been for the past 10 months.
“The curriculum is designed so within 12 weeks they are employable,” Dunleavy said. “People fighting addiction don’t have two, three, four years to wait for an apprenticeship. They need to start working as soon as possible to stay on the path.”
‘This is Where I Come When I Need Peace’
Before getting to the theater, Keys walked through a carpentry shop, past a classroom where several men were holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and into a large tool storage room.
“We have contracts with different real estate companies to do trash outs and clean up jobs,” Keys said. “We’ll go in and a garage is full of tools, so they let us keep them.”
In another classroom sits the hollowed out body of a small hatchback for an auto repair program in the works. Other classrooms are used to teach math and measurement skills for construction jobs. A sizable library is available to all clients, with several copies of job training manuals and other books.
In a commercial kitchen, residents make 210 meals a week for the staff and clients. The chef in charge worked for Brinker International, and everyone looks forward to the meals. On a Thursday in May, dinner was barbecue chicken, mashed potatoes and roasted corn.
“That’s not a bad menu for a recovery home,” said Jeff, a client who works in the kitchen. “Our dinners are real good. If you walk away hungry it’s your fault.”
Jeff lives in a two-person room, an upgrade over the starting dorm-style living space he earned for sticking with Affordable Recovery’s treatment and job training requirements.
“When they come in we give them a purpose. Something small. Cleaning,” said Hope Larkin, case manager at Affordable Recovery. “And if they do a good job they see they are needed. But we tell them ‘you didn’t get here overnight, you’re not getting back overnight.’ There’s no magic wand. That’s why when they come in through the door they are scheduled for four AA meetings a week.”
Aside from the four meetings, the clients then have to attend meetings outside the facility, though Affordable provides transportation to and from the meets. Affordable Recovery doesn’t allow sex offenders or people with past violent offenses. Background checks are performed before a man can enter.
Those with LINK cards can use them to pay for services at the facility, but they don’t turn people away without means, Larkin said. Once they are working, about $100 a week from their paychecks goes to Affordable’s costs. Other money comes in through job training grants.
Along with the in-house job training, Affordable also coordinates with local staffing agencies.
“If there isn’t an opportunity to work outside the facility, they work inside.” Larkin said. “They are busy all day. Guys ask me to do resumes for them, but they have to earn it.”
During the first 30 days, they also cannot use a cell phone.
“The first 30 days are critical,” Larkin said. “They really will make it or break it.”
The theater is one of a few places on the campus where the tenants can unwind. They also have access to a gym, a billiards room and other lounge areas.
“A large part of recovery is your health,” Keys said. “For so many years we tore our bodies down and it takes work to get them back up again.”
Further on into the Mother of Sorrows facility tour, Keys stopped at a long chapel, with rows of stained glass along the walls, and orderly pews lining the floor.
“This is where I come when I need peace,” he said. “Everything is original from the 1940s.”
Keys along with most of the staff live on site at Mother of Sorrows, and offer their knowledge from experience to the clients.
“We’ve been there so we can step by step show them through practical, experiential knowledge how to recover,” Larkin said, who has seven-and-a-half years of sobriety under her belt. “We’re success stories in recovery and we lead by example.”
From Bottles to Blue Island
John Dunleavy first came up with concept of Affordable Recovery while in treatment for addiction. Frustrated with the pressure to quickly find work, he wondered if treatment could go hand in hand with job training.
In 2003, an opportunity arose to put the plan in action.
Garbage workers went on strike in Chicago, and bars around Wrigley Field became overwhelmed with trash. Dunleavy and a few other people in recovery struck a deal with the bars to empty their dumpsters and take the trash to a landfill in Indiana.
One bar alone had nine dumpsters that needed to frequent emptying, Dunleavy said.
“God has a sense of humor,” he said about the clean up effort. “A bunch of alcoholics picking up beer bottles.”
With the money earned, Dunleavy and the others opened up their first home in Palos Hills, and locations in Worth, Harvey, Homewood and Chicago Heights followed.
About 10 months ago, Dunleavy and his wife Mary Jo, along with other staff, moved with their clients into the former Mother of Sorrows Catholic School building, in part to help protect eight nuns living there from vandals who over several years caused damage throughout the building.
Since then, their numbers have grown to about 70 clients with more eager to join.
In May, Affordable Recovery started facing new challenges in the midst of their growth.
On May 25, Affordable Recovery received a notice from the City of Blue Island that they had to either install a sprinkler system, or reduce their numbers to 14 clients, by the end of the month.
Staff scrambled to find quarters for 56 clients, placing some in the licensed recovery home in Harvey, and elsewhere
Blue Island Mayor Don Peloquin said Affordable Recovery was never licensed to have that many people staying at Mother of Sorrows, and also with those numbers they needed new sprinklers to comply with fire codes.
“In the beginning, we allowed 12 to 14 people there for security for the nuns and clean up,” Peloquin said. “Then it got to be 70 people. They went beyond what they talked about.”
Peloquin said the city also took issue with them bringing in people with criminal records, including felons.
Ultimately, Peloquin said he’s in favor of what Affordable Housing is working to accomplish, but they need to be within code. According to Peloquin, Affordable was given 30 days to acquire their state license and 60 days to bring the sprinklers up to code.
Dunleavy said this was first they were told that their fire systems weren’t adequate. He also said they didn’t hide their numbers, or entrance requirements, from the city, and they received no response when they requested inspections form the city to get their state license.
According to Dunleavy, they were first told by the city to install a new fire alarm and sprinkler system in the high school during their first 18 months, and work on sewer drainage. During the second 18 months, Affordable then had to expand the sprinkler and alarm system into the convent portion of Mother of Sorrows, Dunleavy said.
“Why would I jeopardize something I’m trying to do by not following rules?” Dunleavy said. “If the building commissioner stuck to the original agreement, to come in and take us through this whole process step by step, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.”
A legal battle ensued throughout June between the city and the organization over whether they can stay in Mother of Sorrows.
A Cook County judge is expected to rule early next week as to whether the city had just cause to set the licensing and code compliance timelines as they did.
In the meantime, 48 people still remain at Mother of Sorrows including staff.
“We’re survivors,” Dunleavy said. “I believe in my heart, and in my faith, that we can make this happen.”