Capital News Service
A bronze medallion bearing the letters “NA” – for Narcotics Anonymous – hangs from Sherry Sanderson’s neck. She tears up as she looks down and reads the message engraved on it.
“That no addict seeking recovery need ever die,” she says.
The 40-year-old mother of three smiles. One year sober. She’s the first to say her recovery is only beginning, but now the clinic she credits for helping her turn her life around is in the midst of a recovery of its own.
Rubicon Inc., a substance abuse and mental health treatment center that has served the Richmond community for more than 40 years, is trying to regain its financial footing after nearly having to close its doors last fall. The Virginia Department of Taxation froze the nonprofit’s bank accounts last fall because the organization owed nearly $150,000 in payroll withholding taxes.
In addition, Rubicon owed $1.7 million in back taxes to the IRS, according to executive director Lawrence Everette. The organization asked the city for emergency funds to stave off a shutdown. Six months later, Everette is cautiously optimistic about the future.
“Things have improved. They’re not totally resolved, but they’re definitely improved,” Everette said. Since he took over Rubicon as executive director in August, he says the organization has been up to date with its payments to the federal and state tax agencies.
“It’s slim to none that we would close,” he said.
The nonprofit struck a deal with the IRS to pay the $1.7 million it owes, Everette said. Rubicon had to cut positions from its payroll to make ends meet. The decision to do so was made, Everette said, because of fewer people using the organization’s services.
Offering Hope Throughout Richmond
At its Highland Park facility, Rubicon operates a treatment center that can house nearly 100 men. It has a women’s program that can treat up to 40 women, a separate women and children’s treatment program with 14 beds and a 20-bed detoxification facility. Additionally, the organization has a satellite program called the Holistic Opportunity for Promise and Empowerment – known appropriately as HOPE – in Petersburg.
The Richmond City Jail, the Virginia Department of Corrections, Richmond Adult Drug Treatment Court, the VCU Health System, the Daily Planet homeless shelter and others refer patients to Rubicon for treatment. The nonprofit also partners with the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, the city’s organization that handles substance abuse, mental health and developmental disabilities.
“There are a fair number of babies who are born that are drug exposed, and it all adds up to a number of pregnant women in town who are addicted to drugs,” said James May, director of planning and development and substance abuse services for the RBHA. “When it comes to the attention of other service providers, they refer them to us.”
And the RBHA refers them to Rubicon, the only facility in central Virginia that allows mothers to live with their children while they detox and begin the long process of recovery.
Sherry Sanderson was one of those women.
‘I Wasn’t Worth Anything’
Sanderson started drinking at a young age and using cocaine in her teens. It wasn’t long before the New Jersey native was kicked out of high school and got pregnant with her first child. In the early ’90s, she moved to Richmond, where she began using crack cocaine.
Her addiction worsened following a series of personal tragedies. Her fiancé died, and Social Services took her daughter. Depressed and addicted with no family support, she turned to the streets.
Sanderson prostituted herself on Jefferson Davis Highway to pay for the drugs fueling her habit. In doing so, she developed a new one: shooting heroin.
“I thought I was a dirty no good whore, and I thought all the things that happened were because I wasn’t worth anything,” she said.
In 10 years on the streets, she was beaten, shot at, raped and left for dead. In the early 2000s, Sanderson went in and out of jail and did two stints in prison for a litany of drug-related charges, grand larceny and forgery. The time behind bars did little to curb her addiction.
Even the birth of her son, Malachi, couldn’t convince her to kick the habit permanently. She remembers times when she was too dope sick to get out of bed and cook the child breakfast. By the time she was referred to Rubicon Women’s and Children’s Treatment Community by RBHA in 2011, she says she had lost 20 years of her life to drugs.
‘That Was a Wake-Up Call’
She and Malachi, then 8 years old, moved in to the treatment center together, guaranteeing their family wouldn’t be separated by Sanderson’s treatment. The pair moved in to a second-floor room in the Women’s Treatment Center and shared bunk beds.
At Rubicon, mothers can live with up to three children in the treatment center. There are day care services, family counseling services and a playground. All of the school-aged children attend Richmond City Public Schools. Parents are able to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and earn their GEDs.
With the help of Rubicon’s staff, Sanderson was able to work toward maintaining her sobriety, but Malachi wasn’t happy.
“It was the first week and he said, ‘Why am I being punished? You were the one who was doing the drugs, not me,’ ” she recalls him saying, her voice trembling. “That was a wake-up call.”
Sanderson says she felt guilty, but her only other option was to surrender Malachi to Child Protective Services. She’d already lost two children to the system and wasn’t willing to give up her third.
It’s estimated that up to two thirds of families in the child welfare system are affected by parental substance abuse, according to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare.
“It’s an extremely positive thing for the child to be able to not be separated from the mother when she’s in treatment,” said Everette, who has worked with Rubicon for the past 39 years. “I can’t imagine how anyone can think it’s anything but.”
Sanderson credits Rubicon for teaching her how to raise her son.
“Rubicon taught me how to live … how to be a Mom,” she said. “I had no idea that three meals a day at a square table meant something.”
Founded in 1970, Rubicon Inc. is Virginia’s oldest and most comprehensive chemical dependency treatment program. It offers a full range of services, from detoxification to after care, for people with substance abuse problems.
The website for the nonprofit organization is www.rubiconrehab.org