Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


 A moving act of bravery unfolds when a recovering alcohol or drug addict stands up in public and seeks an encouraging word.

Luckily, Arlington responds. I witnessed it on Sept. 18 at the annual “Recovery Celebration” staged by the nonprofit Phoenix Houses of the Mid-Atlantic in the banquet room of the Knights of Columbus.

This year’s event was special in that it marked the 50th anniversary of the Arlington provider of substance abuse treatment that unites, in the phrase of senior vice president and regional director Deborah Simpson Taylor, a local “human web” of clients, alumni, counselors, administrators, family members, and stalwarts from the school and judicial communities.

“People on the other side of the counseling table started where you are,” she assured the assembly of some 200. She cited her own rewards from “the opportunity to work in a field where people can get better and starting loving life again.”

What today is Arlington’s Phoenix House was born in September 1962 in the basement of Walker Chapel. As recalled by board member Edd Nolen, “At the time there seemed to be a lot of alcoholism and drinking going in the community of men.” So a group of Arlington Kiwanis, among them dentists Lucas Blevins, Joe Kline and Ken Haggerty as well as attorneys Ken McFarlane Smith and Thomas Dodge, decided the church could be a place “where men could come and get guidance and help them get on a road to recovery.”

After a couple of years of organizing, Alcoholics Rehabilitation Incorporated was on its way to eventually treating 30,000 clients.

In the 1980s, the board renamed it Vanguard Services Unlimited, and in 2010, it affiliated with the national program Phoenix House.

The fully accredited center now helps addicts achieve “new beginnings” via 140 combined full-time and part-time doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and administrators at its Quincy Street headquarters and several satellite facilities. Those include separate centers for new mothers and their children, young men, young women, and Latino men, plus a halfway house for those working toward independence.

Though some Phoenix House clients have private insurance, many benefit from the center’s contracts with Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria that refer indigent clients on a fee basis.

“We have a 70 percent or more completion rate, which is 20 per cent over national average,” says Taylor, a psychiatric nurse formerly with Virginia Hospital Center. “I like to call us Arlington’s best kept secret, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing because some don’t know we exist.”

At last week’s banquet, volunteers and staff served dinner donated by Harris Teeter, Whole Foods and Joe’s Pizza and Pasta. Speakers gave intimate testimonials of struggle. Phoenix House “saved my life, and made me realize I had a life worth saving,” said David Washington, an attorney battling alcoholism. “Recovery is a lifelong process, but you’re not in it alone.”

To the cheers of a supportive crowd, each group in the program performed skits, recited poetry or sang songs such as “The Storm is Over Now,” and an original with the lyric “I’m a veteran of the war for my soul.”

On Saturday, Sept. 29, Phoenix House holds a fund-raiser dance and reception at the Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel in Crystal City—donation $250. As Taylor tells donors, “Unfortunately, we stay in business because problems with drugs and alcohol not going away.” 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com