Leon Worden

Taking recovery to Al-Impian heights

Leon WordenJune 4, 1997

If Richard Rioux were here he'd be having a busy week, gearing up for the International Al-Impic Games this Saturday at College of the Canyons. Rioux, who died April 28, was executive director of the Antelope Valley Rehabilitation Centers, which sponsor the games each year.

No doubt he'd use the opportunity to remind Signal readers that alcohol and drugs can be found on every junior and senior high school campus in the Santa Clarita Valley, and that substance abuse affects every family at one time or another. He'd show us once again the signs of adolescent drug abuse, and he'd finish by telling us what to do about it.

One of the things the County of Los Angeles has "done about it" since 1961 is send chronic alcoholics and drug abusers to the two AVRC facilities at Acton and Warm Springs for a 90-day treatment program. Most patients are referred by the courts and other county agencies, although the AVRC program is so popular and effective, Rioux mentioned when I visited the Acton facility last fall, that many addicts hear about the recovery program "on the streets" and enroll in it voluntarily.

Most patients today are polydrug abusers. While Warm Springs remains an all-male facility with 199 beds, ever since 1975 both men and women of all ages, races and economic strata have filled the 309 beds at Acton. When you talk to them and listen to their stories, which Rioux often shared in these editorial pages, you quickly see that the vast majority takes their recovery seriously.

The AVRCs use the 12-step model, and there is a camaraderie that develops in the various fellowships -- Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous -- that generally transcends any racial or ethnic tensions one might expect in such close environs.

Twenty-two thousand patients came through Acton and Warm Springs during Rioux's tenure. The facilities are the first- and third-largest of their type, respectively, in the nation. They are the only treatment centers directly operated by the county, although they are among about 200 rehabilitation programs that the county subsidizes. The per-patient cost of services at Acton and Warm Springs consistently runs nearly three times less than the cost of comparable private services.

An estimated 47 percent of patients complete the 90-day program. The rate is closer to 70 percent for those who participate in an on-site literacy program, which Rioux pioneered when he realized that many abusers lack the basic skills to get ahead in the working world. Compare that to a 95 percent recidivism rate in prisons, and one can only guess how many millions of dollars the AVRCs save the county each year in reduced arrests and hospital costs.

The Al-Impics, or Alcoholic Olympics, were started in 1973 by Kurt Freeman, Rioux's predecessor as AVRC director. A Castaic resident, Freeman remembers: "I found that chronic alcohol and drug addicts didn't know how to use their leisure time in constructive ways. They would engage in destructive activities. The key was to get people to transfer their addiction to something positive." Freeman says pre- and post-testing showed athletic activity led to decreased dependence and anxiety -- "the reason people drink" -- and improvements in physical health, social skills and cognitive abilities.

From its humble beginnings with only 200 participants, over the years the Al-Impics have grown into the largest sporting competition of its kind in the world.

Roughly 15,000 men, women, friends and families of recovering alcoholics and drug abusers will fill Cougar Stadium this Saturday, June 7 for world-class track and field competitions, social and recreational events, picnics and 12-step fellowships.

Patterned after the Olympic Games, the event kicks off at 9 a.m. with an opening parade featuring patients from more than 100 different treatment programs and facilities in the U.S. and abroad. A special presentation will be made to a major sponsor of rehabilitation programs, Lou Johnson, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The day itself will be dedicated in memory of Richard Rioux -- a man who understood that sometimes, all people need is a second chance and somebody to believe in them.

If you're a teacher, call 269-0062 to have an AVRC representative talk to your students before school lets out.

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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