The Coulee Council on Addictions, which during almost five decades has helped thousands of people reach and maintain sobriety, has a strategic plan to move into its own recovery during its 50th anniversary next year.
That’s the target date for the council, which has been headquartered in an increasingly dilapidated building since 1979, to enter the next 50 years in a new building to be christened The Coulee Recovery Center.
Council officials will launch a $2.9 million capital campaign to build the facility during its fourth annual spring brunch, “Voices for Recovery,” from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. today in The Waterfront’s Cargill Room.
“The need has been discussed for a few years, in regards to the old building needing repairs, and it costs a lot for maintenance,” said Cheryl Hancock, who became executive director of the council in August 2015.
Repairs to the 6,000-square-foot converted house sometimes hamstring Coulee Council, such as the recent 10-day stint during which plumbing problems forced it to close and suspending its programs
In the interim, the more than 50 independent support groups the council allows to meet there monthly had nowhere to go, and the organization’s meals, programs and other services were left in limbo.
Building deteriorates, projects poor image
The building at 921 West Ave. S. has little curb appeal and hardly presents an inspiring face to people trying to set aright troubled lives. The deteriorating building better reflects the scarred image of people who have taken to self-medication than the pride of mission Coulee Council feels in helping put such lives in order.
The house consists of a large meeting room and rooms converted into offices on the first floor, with a tiny rudimentary kitchen, a dining room/gathering space and recreation area down a staircase that defies accessibility.
Parking is negligible — just 10 parking spots behind the building. Patrons attending evening meetings that routinely draw 30 to 50 people must fan out in search of parking on neighborhood streets. That is especially inconvenient during the winter, when snow and ice make the shortcut through the alley to the back door a perilous route.
“The board had the foresight in 2015 to develop a strategic plan … including bringing its financial house in order to make changes and get on a solid financial footing” to begin planning for a new building, said Hancock, who also is a member of the Holmen School Board.
One aspect of the planning has been the need to remove the stigma attached to recovery, “with an awareness that enough people are affected by substance abuse,” she said.
Marketing students: ‘Your name has stigma’
The council enlisted marketing students from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to do research and create a plan to remove the stigma, as well as create a new brand for the council.
“The funny thing is they came back and said, ‘Your name has a stigma,’” Hancock said, shaking her head as if to marvel at the practicality of the observation.
Thus the new name: The Coulee Recovery Center, to be emblazoned on the center, the location of which hasn’t been determined, Hancock said.
The location checklist includes being in central La Crosse, being on a bus route and having adequate parking, she said.
The organization began in 1968, when people concerned about alcohol abuse — including G. Heileman Brewing Co. President Roy Kumm — formed the West Central Council on Alcoholism, she said.
“Kumm had enough foresight,” she said. “I wonder what he would think about it now.”
Eventually changing its name from the alcoholism council to its current moniker to acknowledge the increasing specter of addictive drugs, the council has helped thousands of people during its nearly five decades — calculating 34,000 interactions with people, some of which were repeats, last year alone, Hancock said.
The facility, which offers meals several times a week, has outreach initiatives in four main areas: crisis and early intervention, recovery support services, education and prevention, and collaboration and advocacy.
Last year it helped almost 700 people in crisis situations while responding to 491 crisis calls, both by phone and in person. It provided 186 assessments for alcohol and other drug abuse and facilitated more than a dozen teen intervention sessions.
When Dr. Tom Thompson, who co-chairs the capital campaign with Dan Radtke, was president of Coulee Council, he moved the mission from its focus solely on individuals to individuals and families, Hancock said.
And numerous studies have shown recovery must include the mind, spirit and body, Hancock added.
“The spirit can be different for everyone — whether it involves a higher power or whatever,” she said.
“We provide the recreation component, an outdoor component (with activities and cookouts behind the facility) and the component to help people find resources and services,” said Hancock, who was attracted to the executive director position because of the council’s mission.
“I liked the executive director position because of the idea of building teams to help people recover,” she said, adding, “I have a very personal reason, too.”
Daughter’s death provides personal incentive
Hancock’s daughter, Jessica Lichtie, who struggled with substance abuse disorder and had the dual diagnosis of bipolar disorder, died as a result of her mental illness and addiction at the age of 38 in December, Hancock said, tearing up and speaking haltingly as she struggled to compose herself.
“I had a lot of hope we could help her,” said Hancock, whose previous positions included being executive director of the Scenic Bluffs Chapter of the American Red Cross.
When people ask how she was able to go back to work after the tragedy, she answers, “A doctor doesn’t quit just because a patient dies.”
Hancock’s sense of purpose and allegiance to the council’s mission — plus the support of friends, board members and clients — bolster her resolve, she said.
The council’s funding comes from a La Crosse County grant that is used mostly for programs, an allotment from Great Rivers United Way, and foundations, private donations and fees.
“The bulk is relying on the public, the generosity of the La Crosse community,” Hancock said.
The design for the new one-story center includes a 13,000-square-foot facility that is accessible to all, with a private waiting area for counseling services, flexible multi-purpose rooms for education and support group meetings, a kitchen that allows efficient food storage and preparation, a resource center and library, a drop-in center, a meditation and contemplation area, a children’s play area, and office space for other nonprofits to meet with and assist recovery center patrons.
“We reached out to referrals — not just people who use it, but those who refer people to learn their ideas about what is needed,” Hancock said. “We are sticking to our mission — there are so many needs.”