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Addiction recovery facility will be all about building community together

Society on a clear path with members’ experiences to provide valuable help
The former St. Joseph’s School site will remain an art studio at least into early next year. It will take some time before being converted to an addictions recovery community. (Don Bodter/Black Press Media)

Board members of the Cowichan Valley Intentional Recovery Community Society are passionate about making a difference in peoples’ lives.

Bernie Willock, 64, of Mill Bay is chair of the CVIRCS board that includes his wife Marlene Willock, Orlando Sumner and Pastor Ken Nettleton. The organization was registered as a B.C. society in November of 2019.

Now that they have a location for their planned women’s residential therapeutic community at the former St. Joseph’s School site in Chemainus after purchasing it from Island Catholic Schools, they’re anxious to get on with the process of putting their program in place there that helps those in recovery from alcohol and drug addictions through education in social skills, vocational training and connection with a supportive community.

But it is going to take considerable time before occupancy happens. The property first needs to be subdivided for the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to remain on one parcel.

“Pre-COVID, that could take 12 months,” pointed out Bernie Willock.

The time until the subdivision of the land is completed will be utilized for the organization to work on a building plan.

Once all those steps are finalized, building permits will be required from the Municipality of North Cowichan in order to complete an estimated five to six months of renovations.

“In an optimistic timeline, I’m saying 18 months,” said Willock as a reasonable goal for opening.

“The next thing I think people need to know, we’ll start with a small cohort of no more than eight to begin with,” he added.

After six to nine months, a few more people could be added to the program, with those who’ve already been in residency being able to help the newcomers in addition to the support provided by staff and volunteers.

“Every resident participates in building the community together,” Willock pointed out. “No one gets a free ride. The first few months of sobriety and adjusting to life in community are really, really hard.”

The group paid $850,000 for the building and outdoor space surrounding the school, the amount sought by the Diocese of Victoria to satisfy the accumulated debt from the former St. Joseph’s School.

Related story: Former Chemainus St. Joseph’s School site sold to addictions recovery group

The CVIRCS heard about the St. Joseph’s location right around the time of its formation and contacted the Diocese office about it. “They were looking at this type of purchaser, which was encouraging for us,” noted Willock.

Negotiations have been ongoing ever since, slowed somewhat by COVID, before reaching fruition.

The Diocese was concerned as discussions were coming to a conclusion about misinformation pertaining to the group and what that would mean for the neighbourhood dynamics. Once people started to understand it is not going to be a homeless shelter or safe injection site, but a recovery centre operating like a household with firm rules and no drugs or alcohol, the perception changed and generated more positive feedback.

Willock said he has not received any negative emails or phone calls to date.

The CVIRCS focus is to develop a supportive residential recovery community for vulnerable people who have limited support and are seeking full recovery from substance abuse addictions. The CVIRCS community program fulfills two important treatment gaps by offering long-term residencies as well as vocational training.

“We are community builders,” said Willock. “For those who’ve either gone through detox or attended short-term recovery centres, we want to provide a home to make that transition back to a healthy, flourishing life.

“We need to move into a community where we can learn to reconnect with what your passions were before drugs and alcohol.”

It wasn’t initially made public about the program being just for women. The original plan was for mixed residency, but the CVIRCS was waiting on some data to come back before making the final decision to only house women.

“Women that are struggling with addictions, they’re not telling anybody,” explained Willock. “Why aren’t they telling anybody? Because many fear they might lose custody of their children if their addictions were to be revealed.

“Our long-term intent is to be able to host women with their children so we can work with the family.”

The venture being formulated at St. Joseph’s is the culmination of many aspects of Willock’s life, one with about “eight different careers,” he conceded.

Willock grew up in the Royal Oak/Cordova Bay area and graduated from Claremont Secondary School in 1975. He’s lived in Mill Bay since 1990.

Willock went to BCIT and started in forestry, working with Pacific Logging for 10 years. He’s also been in the furniture business, served as a youth pastor at Central Baptist Church in Victoria, was the chief executive officer for Food For the Hungry Canada and travelled all over the world, and partnered with his son with Pine Lodge Contracting.

Two years ago, he was pondering a question about all his experiences. “How can I leverage everything I’ve learned and gained over the years to serve in my local community, what would that look like?”

Willock found his answer when he was invited to join a small group of people seeking to build a long-term residential recovery community.

The others on the board bring similar aspects of life experience that will prove beneficial to the program. Orlando Sumner has more than 40 years of sobriety and has coached and walked with many people in our valley seeking freedom from substance abuse, Willock pointed out.

“He understands what it means to work with people who are seeking a better life.

“Marlene and I, we’ve just had a lot of experience with our personal connections. We’ve seen the importance of a supportive community for people to truly maintain sobriety.”

The CVIRCS has connected with the New Roads Therapeutic Community in View Royal in formulating its plan.

“We’ve been in contact with their executive director through our start-up,” said Willock. “They’ve been very helpful – just start small.”

One of the next steps for the CVIRCS will be to form three advisory groups. There is much ground to be covered, including grant writing and seeking donations. Construction companies are already on board to offer whatever services they can during the renovation stage when it’s time.

Overall, the goal is to engage with the new neighbours, share its vision, answer questions and welcome support while facilitating the holistic transformation of people in and through community. Those living in and connected to the proposed community will be mutually transformed and live richer, fuller lives.

“We will take people from all races, creeds,” stressed Willock.

“There is no barrier. Once the applicant is accepted, we will help them find their way.”

Bernie Willock.
Orlando Sumner, left, and Bernie Willock sign the purchase contract for St. Joseph’s school. (Submitted)
Community development and community gardens in Rwanda with Bernie Willock, C.E.O. at the time with Food for the Hungry Canada. (Photo submitted)
Bernie Willock and son Ben surveying waterfront property for a renovation job. (Photo submitted)
Community development leaders in Guatemala with Bernie Willock while he was C.E.O. of Food for the Hungry Canada. (Photo submitted)
Woman leader of community development in Cambodia with family. (Photo submitted)

Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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