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Work on farm helping to rehabilitate addicts
They’re up early at Petaluma dairy
PETALUMA – A month after spending his nights on San Francisco's streets, penniless and addicted to speed, James Jennison tenderly petted a calf that he'd helped deliver about an hour earlier.
The calf wobbled as it nuzzled Jennison, who was grinning from his morning's work at this drug rehabilitation dairy farm in the rolling hills about 40 miles north of San Francisco.
"It was, I'd have to say, one of the most amazing things I've ever seen," said Jennison, 29, a former AOL computer technician.
Jennison, like some 22 million Americans, has struggled to lead a life while addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Now, after several years living on the streets, he is one of 40 men living at St. Anthony's Farm, an unusual program that offers some of California's poorest addicts a way to get clean.
Birthing calves is one of the many chores the men do as part of an intensive 12-step therapy program that weaves the daily tasks of farm life into recovery.
Although the homeless account for just a fraction of the country's addicts, they are the least able to afford treatment and the ones often in need of the most medical help.
So unlike many treatment centers, the 315-acre dairy farm run by the San Francisco-based St. Anthony's Foundation has provided its services for free since 1954. In fact, only residents who have no income qualify for the program.
None of the men have medical insurance, most don't have a home and nearly all of their families have severed ties with them.
"Generally, when people have gotten to the point where they are homeless, they have lost the support of their families, the support of their job," said Robert Lindsey, president and CEO of the New York-based National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the country's oldest national advocacy health organization that deals exclusively with alcoholism and drug dependence.
The dairy farm makes about $162,000 a year by selling more than 1,800 gallons of organic milk a day to help fund its treatment program, which costs about $600,000 a year, said Francis Aviani, a spokeswoman with St. Anthony Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides 11 clothing, housing, employment and rehabilitation programs for the San Francisco area's homeless. The rest of the farm's budget comes from donations and private grants.
The 315-acre dairy farm also plans to sell organic butter.
It boasts an organic vegetable garden and powers some of its buildings with a methane digester, which turns cow manure into electricity.
Besides attending counseling and group meetings, the men at the Petaluma farm follow a structured schedule, a common feature of most treatment programs. But unlike recreation or games found in other settings, the schedule here involves early rising required for running a dairy farm.
Sam McBride, 42, wakes at 5:30 a.m. for breakfast before heading out to the maintenance shed at 8 a.m. His job one recent January day was to paint the dorm rooms where the men bunk while they are here for six months.
It's a far cry from the touring musician's life that McBride led as the lead singer of hard rock bands Fang and the Resistoleros – most of it addicted to heroine which has clearly aged him.
The dairy farm is the first treatment center McBride has stayed at for more than eight days. He's been there nearly three months.
"I knew if I kept going on that path I would end up back in prison or dead," said McBride, who in the 1990s served six years in prison for manslaughter. "This is a safe environment. You're in a forced environment living with other people where you can work through things."
The men here are electricians, musicians, software engineers and landscapers. Several have college degrees and once drew six-figure salaries.
In most cases, they are learning how to function again – with the help of some gentle cows.
"They all have this common quandary of finding a way through their addiction and living a healthy life," said Gale Priestley, the farm's director. "A cow is not going to care if you're a drug addict or an alcoholic."
Ryan Medlin, who owned his own software company in Charlotte, N.C., is learning to sit up straight after sleeping for nearly a year in his Suzuki hatchback on San Francisco's streets. When he arrived two months ago, he walked hunched over and struggled with the outside work.
Although the 33-year-old found jobs last year in San Francisco, he would spend his six-figure paycheck to get high. To his co-workers, he appeared a quiet person, but he didn't want questions about his lonely life on the streets after work, he said.
"I was in San Francisco for 10 months. I had no friends. It was easy to be under the radar," he said. "I don't feel that alone anymore."
When Medlin lost his last job, he said he realized he need help.
At the milking pit, 24-year-old Charles Onraet spends several hours a day hooking up pumps to the 250 cows that come through for milking twice a day.
It's mundane but peaceful work that Onraet hopes will earn him an internship in the farm's creamery once he has completed the rehabilitation program. If he's accepted at the creamery, he would live at a house on the property and after six months would leave the farm with $2,400 in his pocket.
Others program participants like Medlin plan to get help in San Francisco, where the foundation will set them up in transitional housing and help them get jobs after they leave the farm.
Sitting in the farm's lodge, McBride says he is focusing first on becoming a better person here so that when he leaves he can be a father to the two children he says he dumped on his ex-wife because of his addiction.
"As an addict, I became very self-centered and selfish in everything I did," McBride said. "So it's important for me to work on humility and giving back and looking how I affect other people. I think that's something you can get here by shoveling cow manure."