When Bill Howell hires a recovering addict, he knows their situation first hand.
This is the seventh installment in a continuing look at drug abuse and its effect on the Island community by Times reporter Barry Stringfellow. The series began on Jan. 2 “Opiate addiction hits home,” and was followed on Jan. 22 “Martha’s Vineyard police and physicians confront opiate abuse,” on Feb. 12 “Opiates, a love story,” and on May 7 “Battling Addiction on Martha’s Vineyard,” on June 5 “Section 35—when addiction calls for drastic action” and on June 25, Intervention—tackling addiction head on.
Bill Howell arrived at the Vineyard House construction site off Holmes Hole Road in Vineyard Haven early on a recent sunny Monday morning with his dog, Keeper, kicking up a cloud of dust behind him. Mr. Howell didn’t look like a typical cement contractor in baggy shorts, low-cut Chuck Taylor All-Stars and faded “Keep off grass” tee-shirt. He also bucked the stereotype with his easy-going, soft-spoken manner.
He gave instructions to his young and eager five-man crew as they put the finishing touches on an expansive foundation for the men’s dormitory at the new Vineyard House, the Island’s only sober living facility. The job has special significance for Mr. Howell. “I was one of the first residents of Vineyard House; I started living there in 1999,” he said. “I bid low on this job. I really wanted this one.”
Mr. Howell started Concrete Bill, his cement contracting company, in 2001 when he was still a resident at Vineyard House. He’ll have 15 years clean time on November 29 — “5,377 days clean, but who’s counting?” he said.
Mr. Howell has hired many Vineyard House residents and alumni over the years. “A lot of people in recovery won’t hire people in recovery. I don’t get that,” he said. “I did from day one. This is not a not-profit company. But I can’t not hire these guys.”
Four out of five of his crew today are in recovery. “We were five out of six, but we lost one last week,” he said. “He needed to borrow $500 for a new car, that’s the last I’ve seen of him.” Mr. Howell shrugged. “I don’t fire people who are struggling. In the past 10 years, I only had to fire one person.”
Mr. Howell’s company, Concrete Bill, is well respected in the Island building community. “Bill has been doing foundations for me since he first started out,” Bill Potter, CEO of Squash Meadow Construction, told The Times. Squash Meadow is the general contractor for the new Vineyard House. “Integrity and honesty are core principles that we believe in as a company and we expect from the people we work with. Bill Howell lives up to that in every respect.”
“Bill’s easy to work with and his crews are quality,” project manager Woody Mitchell told The Times. “When you’re doing modular homes like Vineyard House, foundations have to be perfection. It’s not like you’re framing in the field when you can make adjustments on the fly. Bill does a quality job every time.”
Originally from the Cape, Mr. Howell, 51, came to the Island because he was “basically homeless,” and he hoped the move would lead to the path of recovery.
Initially, it didn’t.
“Pills, cocaine, heroin, I took whatever was there,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to an addict. It has nothing to do with logic. lt’s a form of insanity.” Mr. Howell began using drugs and alcohol at the tender age of 9. Addiction runs deep on both sides of his family. “My father died of complications from alcoholism, my grandfather was an alcoholic,” he said. “Being around addicts was normal for me, and I just kept doing it.”
In the end, the move to the Island was key to his recovery. In addition to gaining a foothold at Vineyard House, “It felt good to have an ocean between me and the people I was spending time with,” he said.
Pillar of the community
Mr. Howell is active in the Island recovery community. In addition to providing employment, he’s a sponsor, mentor and he helps organize an annual celebration of recovery that the Vineyard community has hosted for the past 26 years.
Per 12-step program protocol, no individual can speak to a particular recovery program. While the ultimate goals are the same, there are differences in dictum. “The goal for us is not abstinence, it’s recovery,” Mr. Howell said, adding that he relapsed for the last time in the 90’s. “There’s zero hope or expectation when you start in recovery. All you think about, all day, every day, is using again. But if the times a person uses are shorter, and the clean times last longer, that’s a win.”
Mr. Howell said the dark days create a special bond among recovering addicts. “We’re all survivors of the same near-fatal catastrophe,” he said. “We pull for each other. If you need support, go to a meeting. There’s one on this Island every day.”
Mr. Howell also had a suggestion for people who aren’t sure if they need help. “If you’re wondering if you have a problem, ask your family and friends what they think,” he said. “They’ll tell you.”
Mr. Howell was unfailingly forthcoming about his addiction and his recovery and he didn’t hesitate to give his last name. “I think people are more comfortable doing that because the perception of addiction is changing,” he said. “It has to change. Education and treatment is the silver bullet when it comes to overcoming addiction.”
Two of Mr. Howell’s crew also elected to give their full names.
Jamie Kergaravat, 29, has been working for Concrete Bill for three months. He has the build and the close-cropped hair of a Marine who just finished boot camp. “I was homeless three times,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “I lived in halfway houses, homeless shelters, outdoors. I was not into my recovery.”
Like Mr. Howell, he was down to his last stop when he came to the Island. His aunt took him in after yet another rehab stint at the Brockton Addiction Treatment Center. He’d stolen so much from his mother that she had a court order to keep him 50 feet from her house. “Now, I can’t get her off the phone,” he said laughing.
“The best thing I ever did was going to my first meeting here. I raised my hand and asked for help. It was hard to do. It was like putting my tail between my legs. I was scared. I sat at a table afterwards, and there was a line of people who wanted to help.”
Mr. Kergaravat has six months clean time. He’s lived at Vineyard House for the past five months. “It’s a great group of guys — we all click,” he said. “It’s impossible to do this alone. It’s all about surrounding myself with people who are doing the right thing.”
Which is not to say it’s been a smooth ride. “There’s definitely white-knuckle times, especially in the beginning,” he said. “But I’m not going back. I love living here. This Island has so much to offer.” Mr. Kergaravat reached into the back of his pick-up and picked up a brand-new surf rod and reel. “I haven’t caught anything yet, but I figured it’s time to start learning.”
Emmett Cook, 21, went to 12-step meetings with his father when he was a child. “He did work at it,” Mr. Cook said. By the time his father moved the two of them to the Island for a fresh start, Mr. Cook had been a frequent guest of Rhode Island and Connecticut state youth facilities, starting at age 13.
He enrolled at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School but dropped out after a year. His appetite for drugs grew unabated. “My drug of choice was ‘More,’” he said. “It didn’t matter what it was, just ‘more.’”
Mr. Cook’s father has since moved back to the mainland and is no longer in recovery. Mr. Cook stayed and, after one relapse, has been clean for over a year. “April 17, 2013,” he said.
Mr. Cook had turned 21 the day before he spoke to The Times. He celebrated with a cake and a dip in the ocean, and a meeting. “I usually go to a meeting every day,” he said. “It’s an hour a night: there’s no excuse not to go.”
As the crew packed up, Mr. Kergaravat surveyed the finished job. “It’s very cool that we got to build the foundation for this place,” he said. “If someone wants help, I’d say come to Vineyard House. There’s always a bed. The new place will have tons of beds.”
For more information about Vineyard House, call 508-693-8580 or go to VineyardHouse.org.