Vineyard House - a safety net for recovery

Vineyard House executive director, Brian Mackey and president Dana Anderson: Photo by Nis Kildegaard
Vineyard House executive director, Brian Mackey (left), and president Dana Anderson. Photo by Nis Kildegaard

By Nis Kildegaard - July 13, 2006

When the friends and supporters of Vineyard House gather on July 20 at the Captain Flanders House overlooking Bliss Pond in Chilmark, they'll feast on foods prepared by Jan Buhrman's Kitchen Porch Catering, bid on prizes auctioned by Clarence "Trip" Barnes, move to music by Kate Taylor and Rick Bausman - and toast each other's health with delicious glasses of water.

If water strikes you as a surprising beverage for a summer soirée in these parts, perhaps you don't know that Vineyard House has been playing an essential role for nine years now, providing a safe and sober residence for Islanders in early recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.

Building community awareness of Vineyard House has been a priority for Dana Anderson of Edgartown, the organization's president for the past year. Ms. Anderson and Brian J. Mackey, the executive director of Vineyard House for the past year and a half, sat recently with a reporter to talk about the organization's history, its campaign to build a new campus and the unique challenges of raising awareness about a program so deeply committed to respecting the privacy of its participants.

"It's an interesting problem," says Ms. Anderson.

"Our challenge comes from what we do and who we do it for - what we do is provide a safe and sober place for people in early recovery from addiction. The inherent integrity of that is to honor the anonymity of the people involved. So you really can't do warm, fuzzy interviews with the people Vineyard House is helping, or take people on video tours through each of the houses."

Vineyard House began modestly in 1997, with a single home offering seven beds for men - only for men. Today there are three residences, two for men and one for women, with room for 24 clients. And today, as in the beginning, Vineyard House is the only residential program on Martha's Vineyard for people in recovery from substance abuse.

Growing Up

With demand frequently exceeding the supply of beds, and with a deepening sense of the life-saving difference this program can make, the Vineyard House board of directors took a leap of faith in February, purchasing 4.4 acres in Tisbury for the bargain price of $270,000 from Jerry Goodale and making plans for a new, $4 million campus with room for 39 people.

It's a big step for a relative newcomer to the array of essential helping agencies on the Island, but both Mr. Mackey and Ms. Anderson are convinced this is the right path forward for Vineyard House.

When he came aboard as executive director, Mr. Mackey says, the board of Vineyard House was already grappling with the need to take the organization to its next level: "Over eight years, Vineyard House had evolved and grown, and the organization realized that we were at a transition point. The beginnings of those changes are what we've been involved with over the last year."

Ms. Anderson says simply, "We need to grow up. I, as much as anyone, get nervous about big chunks of money, about asking people for support - about all the things that happen to nonprofits who need to make this transition."

"But this is life-and-death work we're doing at Vineyard House. And there's just no guarantee: This is not a place where people get cured. It's a place where they get skills to cope with who they are, and their disease, and life in general."

In its first nine years, Vineyard House has already served more than 250 Island men and women, and Ms. Anderson likes to point out that when addiction is the disease, whole families are the victims: "I don't know a family this disease has not touched," she says. "It's the ubiquitous nature of addiction."

No Honor Roll

There is no published honor roll of Vineyard House graduates, and in fact, those who struggle hardest sometimes end up with more publicity: Their names appear, from time to time, in the obituaries. But the Island community has scores of people who owe their continuing recoveries, in part, to the opportunity Vineyard House provided them at a critical moment in their lives.

One of those people is Brian Mackey. He explains:

"I came to this organization with experience from a 26-year career in business, but you know, I didn't start my career with the aspiration of being the executive director of Vineyard House. Four years ago, I was a resident in it, for a full year. So I do have a passion for this work."

Vineyard House, he says, fills an essential niche in the continuum of services for people battling addiction. "First," he says, "you have the detox facility to get somebody medically stable. Then you have the Gosnolds of the world, the treatment facilities that run four-week programs - they wake you up at 6:30 and they tell you when to go to bed. What was happening nine years ago, before Vineyard House, was that people would go off-Island, go to detox and treatment, come back and move home with friends and end up slipping right back into addiction.

"This is meant to be a transition stage to help people back to a normal way of life. It's a safe environment that people can be in for a period of time until they get to the point where they're comfortable moving back home. What's so powerful in our program is this environment of support that's created at Vineyard House."

Dana Anderson speaks quietly of her own recovery, now 17 years long, recalling: "I went through a 30-day program myself, but it wasn't until I started learning how to apply the fundamental things I learned there that things began to fall into place for me." That learning process, she says, takes time - and that's why residents of Vineyard House must commit to a stay of six months at a minimum.

Paying the Bills

Residents at Vineyard House pay rents that cover almost a quarter of the organization's annual $450,000 operating costs. The rest comes from donations and from fund-raising events like the July 20 water-tasting party.

Meeting the operating budget while embarking on a capital campaign is daunting, Ms. Anderson admits, but she, too, is passionate about the work of Vineyard House. She says: "We live in a community where we're very fortunate to have the hospital that we have, the Hospice program we have, the VNA programs, the burgeoning Y project - all the things that are incredibly important to this community. And Vineyard House is not at the bottom of that list.

"There's a bumper sticker that I want. It says, 'Hell was full. I came back.' For those who've experienced recovery, they know exactly what that means. This finally boils down to life and death. It's a fatal disease, and Vineyard House is a life raft. All we can do is throw the line, help you in, and pray that in the course of time, something kicks in for you about the experience of life, about being alive in its fullest sense, that is so far preferable to being ill that you chase it for all you're worth."

The 12th and final step in the Alcoholics Anonymous program involves giving back, helping others by helping yourself, reaching out to people at an earlier stage in the struggle for sobriety. So there's a deep sense in which, for Dana Anderson and Brian Mackey and many others, the work of Vineyard House represents that 12th step.

Says Ms. Anderson: "We're not evangelical about that. It is simply the quiet basis of what we do."

Water Tasting Thursday, July 20, 5 pm, Captain Flanders House, North Road, Chilmark. Tickets $50. Reservations 508-693-8580 or www.vineyardhouse.vineyard.net.

Nis Kildegaard lives in Edgartown. He is a writer and editor, and the former long-time news editor of the Vineyard Gazette. He is a frequent contributor to the Martha's Vineyard Times.