Four years ago, Vincent Strumolo was tasked with opening a residential treatment campus on a 40-acre expanse nestled in the woods of Scurry, Texas. Now, four years and over 4,300 clients later, he's finally starting register exactly how much he and his center The Treehouse has accomplished.
"We started as a 60-bed, 40-acre campus," Strumolo said. "We grew the next year to 100 beds, then 165 beds the third year. More importantly, we've crossed just over 4,300 patients. That kind of confirms for me the mind, body, spirit philosophy that we believe in here. At one time I was hoping that the philosophy would work. With over 4,300 patients now, we think we have a successful formula."
There are many factors that set The Treehouse apart from its peers. The scope of their 65-acre facility is difficult to replicate and it doesn't go unused. While helping patients beat their substance-dependent addictions is the first battle for Strumolo and his team, it's only the beginning of the long process of healing and progress that The Treehouse team attempts to point its clients toward.
"First and foremost it's substance," Strumolo said. "We have to get them off the substance so they can start addressing the reasons they went on the substance in the first place. Mental health problems, trauma problems, stressors in the community. It's not just about sobriety. It's sobering up to life and being able to handle the stressors so they don't relapse. That's what a lot of people miss at rehabs. Again, it's mind, body and spirit. We have to hit it from all three dimensions."
In order to do that, Strumolo and his team have put together five different programs each complete with their own handbooks, schedules and leaders. The Treehouse staff ranges from licensed clinical social workers to trained yoga instructors. Rodney Harrison, a Berklee grad, helms a music program that meets multiple times each week while Dalton Blazek, who has been in recovery himself, maintains a wilderness and survival program that focuses on activities like fire building. Most recently, Laura Zalkovsky has helped implement an equine therapy program that involves the care of horses that live and graze on the center's property. And all of these programs are offered in order to help clients get in touch with their personal interests and hobbies while helping them internalize and relearn important concepts like teamwork and responsibility.
"Recovery is very meticulous," Zalkovsky said. "It's daily. So if we can commit to [these programs], we have a better chance of committing to recovery once we leave our bubble here."
"Not a lot of people get to take their passion in life and use it as a tool to influence people in their lives in such a positive and life-changing way," Harrison said.
I'm in recovery, too," Blazek said. "I'm from Scurry so I'm well acquainted with the area. Growing up here I learned fishing and hunting and started to learn different survival skills when I was in recovery. Vinnie said he wanted a new survival program and I told him I'd give it a shot. It started out with a building fire group and that was it. And over the last four years, I've created a four program with a manual that we have published and it's all encompassed around learning different survival skills and relating that back to our recovery. We take them out of their comfort zones, but we're teaching them the same things they would be learning in a classroom. We're teaching them patience, perseverance, communication skills, leadership skills, mindfulness kills, learning how to not act out on your emotions but to take your time. It's awesome to get these kids that have never really been in the outdoors to start a fire for the first time and experience the satisfaction that comes from that accomplishment. But it also works just as well for the 50-year-old who grew up in the outdoors but then throughout life drugs and alcohol took away from that lifestyle get back in to what they were originally into. If you're like me, it's tough to sit in the same classroom every day for 30 days. This gives clients the opportunity to get outside and be more active in their recovery."
It's these types of programs and staff members that prioritize mental well-being that Strumolo emphasizes make the difference months and sometimes even years after a client has left The Treehouse to return to their daily lives. The ability to offer such a broad range of activities has been important to Strumolo from the first day The Treehouse opened, and Strumolo continues to explore other avenues of interest to supplement what is already offered.
"Our philosophy is meeting the client where they are in their recovery," Strumolo said. "A lot of places say that, but we actually do. What does that mean? You can see the wide diversity. We go from adventure therapy to wilderness therapy. Introspective to art therapy. We now have the equine stables, too. I'm a city boy I come from Belleville, New Jersey. And here we have people coming from the country. It's pretty diverse."
That diversity extends into other areas as well. The Treehouse staff comes from a wide range of races, ethnicities, sexualities and beliefs. And according to Brian Sullivan, the director of public relations for all four of the Addiction Campuses facilities which also includes a location in Mississippi, Ohio and Massachusetts, this diversity is precisely what helps make centers like The Treehouse feel like home for its clients.
"There are people from all walks of life that work at this facility," Sullivan said. "When you have that, every single person that walks through the door doesn't feel isolated. They feel like they're around people who get them. We have homeless people recovering right next to millionaires. Everybody is treated equally and you have people who are learning from each other and growing together."
"We go from totally faith-based, we've baptized over 300 people here, all the way to totally non faith-based," Strumbolo added. "Most rehabs you go to, there will be an internal clash with patients that don't want to hear about God when they're atheist or agnostic or vise-versa. We've never had that clash and they all coexist here."
February is a special time for Strumolo and The Treehouse. They opened their doors for the first time in February 2015, and celebrated their fourth anniversary on February 15. And even though this is the third "birthday celebration" The Treehouse has hosted, this one resounded on a higher level than ever with Strumolo.
"This one hit me more than the other three," Strumolo said. "I realized that some of the patients started to see what I used to talk about in my trauma groups. It's a three to five year process sometimes getting past all the alcohol and drugs you used and beginning to handle life differently and living a better lifestyle. But now at the three to five year mark, I want that deeper part about growing and being a better person to start kicking in. The first three years, I wouldn't have seen that. They're processing wasn't there yet. Now I'm finally starting to see people at the two, three, four year mark getting to that next level of understanding for the first time. That was really enjoyable."
Eddie, a former Treehouse client from its first year in service is a perfect representation of what Strumolo envisions for everyone who passes through the center. It's been several years since Eddie attained sobriety, but it's the life-lessons that he learned during his stay at The Treehouse that he carries with him and uses every day.
"They teach you how to love yourself again," Eddie said. "I think a lot about what they've done for me and it's kind of like going to Autozone and getting a bag of tools to work on your truck. But if you them home and leave them sitting there, your truck's not going to get fixed. They gave me the tools to fix myself. The work really begins when we get home. It's a slippery slope. An addict is really emotionally underdeveloped. You look for that maturity, but it's just not there. So you have to grow to learn it through self-help material and a good network of people to help you."
Eddie has made it a point to return to The Treehouse each year during their anniversary celebrations not only to look back on his time and celebrate the strides he's made in his own life, but to reconnect with the people who aided him when he needed it and let them know that he's still benefitting from their support.
"My life took a turn right here," Eddie said. "I can't thank them enough. I want to give them everything. I know they're not in it for the money. They're good-spirited people. I mean, what makes a person go into this type of work? I don't know. All you see is a bunch of people's garbage and baggage they're bringing with them and all of these terrible life experiences. They have to take that and try to fix it. It takes a special type of person. They deserve to see me come back and say 'Hey, I'm doing good.' And that's what I try to do every year."