FIRST at Blue Ridge:
Breaking Bad . . . Habits
Published in Black Mountain News:
February 6, 2014
Spread across three wooded acres in Ridgecrest, FIRST at Blue Ridge is a long-term residential community for chronic substance abuse treatment.
With no institutional signage to identify it or walls to surround it, FIRST’s quiet collection of buildings looks much like its mountain neighbors, with only an occasional bear to disturb the peace. It’s an idyllic setting conducive to introspection, fellowship, healing, and recovery for people who need a second chance.
Under the leadership, since 2003, of Executive Director Joseph A. Martinez, J.D., FIRST at Blue Ridge had its early beginnings in 1991 in Winston-Salem, moving to Ridgecrest in 1998. It grew from an all-male program to a community with a capacity of 160, including the recent addition of a specialized component for women, pregnant women, and soon, women with children.
A private, nonprofit charitable 501(c)(3)organization, FIRST at Blue Ridge was named a licensed Therapeutic Community by the State of North Carolina in 2005, only the second facility so named in the state at that time. Of the six current Therapeutic Community licenses in the state, FIRST holds two of them.
Martinez, a graduate of Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law Center, is rightfully proud of the achievement, which he shares with his staff of 26, many of whom are themselves graduates of the residential program.
FIRST at Blue Ridge clients are mostly young men and women, ages 18 and up, who have entered the residential program voluntarily. While some may be on probation for minor offenses, such as DUI, none have been convicted of violent crimes, sexual offenses, or arson.
Clients many be self-referred or referred by hospitals and clinics, courts, homeless shelters, and social service agencies. FIRST also maintains contracts with the Cherokee Hospital Authority for short-term, 90-day programs for members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee; with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs; and with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety for 90-day Transitional Housing, which includes substance abuse treatment and employment assistance and placement.
FIRST offers the “Vets FIRST,” program, partially funded by Veterans Affairs. Currently, treatment, housing, and case management is provided for 30 veterans – 20 men and 10 women - with chronic substance abuse issues, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or homelessness. According to Martinez, resident vets have served in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and represent all branches of the military and many ranks.
Martinez said, “The disease of addiction makes no distinction between officer or enlisted person, fighter pilot, surgeon, or drill sergeant.
The core 12- to 24-month residential programs offer vocational training, work opportunities, and mandatory 12-Step participation. Programs are highly structured, disciplined, and individualized to include parenting skills, anger management, and relapse prevention.
“Our aim is to reintegrate clients into the community and to prepare them to make the right choices for a healthy life,” Martinez said.
Since education is essential to maintaining independence and building self-esteem and confidence, clients are encouraged to complete a GED high school degree, and can attend community colleges, universities, and technical vocational schools.
“Clients must learn marketable skills while they’re in the program,” Martinez said. “Consistency eliminates chaos.”
At the start of their residency, clients are assigned to internal work crews, learning both teamwork and new skills. Staff is onsite 24 hours a day, seven days a week to mentor, monitor, and “ensure program compliance.”
Martinez pointed out that FIRST’s internal work crews constructed much of the women’s residential building themselves. The building includes semi-private rooms, class and meeting rooms, recreation areas, dining room, and a commercial kitchen with donated equipment from Ingles, Hoodmart, and several others.
As clients progress in their treatment, they join supervised work crews that serve the Asheville area. FIRST operates its own businesses, which help support treatment programs while providing vocational and job skills training.
Martinez has negotiated contracts with The Town of Black Mountain, The Town of Montreat, The City of Asheville, The Asheville Civic Center, Warren Wilson College and others for “commercial and residential landscaping, moving and delivery, painting, labor and handyman services, janitorial and construction cleanup.”
According to Martinez, “We’re creating tax payers, not tax burdens.”
FIRST has a ladder of progress as an incentive for individual growth and development: Residents can step up from client status to peer leader, then house manager, and even a certified staff member.
“We graduate about fifty residents each year and help them find employment and stability,” he said.
Graduates are awarded specially designed FIRST class rings, the same type as traditional rings of other educational institutions, their certificate of completion, and the knowledge that they have taken the first step to having a successful, healthy, drug-free lifestyle.
On the last Sunday of every month, FIRST’s alumni group come together, meeting to celebrate their independence and the fellowship that brought them from recovery to discovery.
For more information, go to http://www.firstinc.org or call 828.669.0011.