My nephew, Hilton, found himself in a hotel room in Sao Paolo. All he had was his passport, some money, and a torn off piece of paper with a phone number and an address on it. He couldn’t really remember much, having drunk about 30 beers on the flight over from OR Tambo. All he was supposed to do was phone that number, fetch the “cargo”, and return to South Africa a day later.
The word “mule” turns our warm blood into ice, and most of us know how that ends up. Images of a friend being stuck in a South American jail defending his life and body, or worse, being cut up into little bits and thrown into the river – are ever present (and true). We all wonder WHY someone would even contemplate becoming a mule. We discuss it over our neat little cups of coffee, and hope like hell our children wont veer off into the infested world of addiction.
The truth is – Addiction is very real, and prevalent amongst us all. From the housewives who pop prescription pills and chase them with “the odd glass of wine at night”, to teenagers who want to numb their growth, and to workaholics who seek refuge in ridiculously long hours, it takes all forms. There is no such thing as a “typical” addict.
Addiction has no boundaries and is completely indiscriminate. Hilton comes from a “good” family. He was a provincial cricketer at school, he is clever, smart and funny. He was surrounded by love, his family and by unconditional support. He wasn’t supposed to end up in a hotel room in Sao Paolo. Yet he did.
Addicts ultimately have three options: Prison, death, or becoming clean and sober. About 1% choose the last option. And if an addict chooses the clean sober route, it is almost impossible to do it without help. Added to that, in South Africa, rehab help is either bank-breakingly expensive, or a Nouwpoort style government run institution. By the time Hilton found himself in that rat infested room in Sao Paolo, he had cost his parents well over R500000 in rehabs around the country. For those of us who love Hilton, it was a continual roller coaster of hope and then desperation as he went in and out of rehab centres. I cannot imagine what his parents (my sister) must have felt – he started using/abusing drugs and alcohol at the age of 14 – they were in their own type of prison for ten years.
Three days after Hilton had made a desperate 2am call to his mother, from that awful hotel room, he found himself at peaceful rehabilitation centre called Healing Wings in Mozambique (now near Nelspruit). Four years later - today, Hilton is clean and sober, and is now working as a teacher, and together with an amazing team, is guiding young teens into the uncertain and shaky world of sobriety. Today he is humbled, accepting of his past. He is loving, kind, honest, well read, intelligent, compassionate and healthy. All the things he was when he was 14. He has “come home” to himself.
For Hilton and his family and friends, we call his recovery a modern day miracle. I wanted to know why Healing Wings has the highest rate of recovery. I wanted to know how they do it, when so many rehabs fail. I wanted to find out the essence of their successful healing. So, one afternoon, I found myself driving through those dusty roads to Nelspruit where they were kind enough to give me their time and their knowledge. I would be given complete transparency and access to whomever I needed.
Healing Wings is a Christian based centre, started in September 2000 by recovering addicts, Acadia and Ruth Valdes Vieira. With little else but their unwavering faith, passion and perseverance, they have dedicated their lives to restoring broken ones and together, they have built a place of true healing, where in the forests of Sudwala, addicts are able to bravely face their demons. Their mission statement is clear: to restore within an individual, the capacity to make informed life decisions which are not dictated by circumstance, addiction or compulsion.
Initially started in the district of Natutuine, Southern Mozambique, Healing Wings is a tightly run entity. It is registered as a voluntary non-profit organisation, carefully directed and financially monitored by its Board and staff members. Nearly ten years later, in 2009, answering to a big need, Healing Wings South Africa was established in Sudwala in Mpumulanga. Recently, Healing Wings have added the Purpose College to their centre – focusing on rehabilitation and schooling for 13 to 17 year olds. It follows in the footsteps of Healing Wings, and was borne from an explosion of drug abuse in that age group. Founder, Ruth, is an experienced educator herself, tells me that the need for a place like Purpose College is critical in South Africa. Addiction is progressive, its secretive, and its destructive in the worst possible way. By offering a space of healing, together with an educational system that works, young teenagers have some hope. She explains that drugs themselves are not the problem; it’s more to do with a lack of self worth, feeling unloved, inadequate, unheard. When I interviewed some of the young residents, their stories were all different, but their feelings on themselves were similar. Yes, there were some horrific unrepeatable stories of abuse, prostitution, neglect, cruelty, and hatred. I listened in to “group share” and I wept silently as beautiful young souls retold their lives. I asked one of the counsellors afterwards how on earth a person returns to normality after those acts of inhumanity. “Forgiveness – of self, and of others” was the answer. Healing Wings and Purpose College work on a very deep level to change lives.
The Purpose College is located a few kilometres from the main Healing Wings Centre. As I drove in, I got a sense of calmness, and a sense of positivity. Tight structure is evident everywhere. Every hour of every day is accounted for and there are consequences for deviating – it’s back to washing dishes, and doing menial tasks. Conversely, if you continue to move forward positivity in recovery, there are rewards. It comes down to that: consequences for everything. Taking responsibility for every action. We could all learn from that.
Giles Fourie, the Managing Director, explains why Healing Wings, and Purpose College have that 75% recovery rate. “Rehabilitation in the world is BIG business. The notion that sustainable life change can occur during and after a two-week stint in rehab – costing up to R40000 for that fortnight – is quite frankly (mostly) unobtainable. Life changes happen slowly”. (Most residents have been to at least 4 rehabs before Healing Wings) Healing Wings and Purpose College strongly urge a 6-month to 1 - year stay. During that time, there is a multi faceted approach to change and sobriety. The 12 Steps Celebrate Recover programme forms the foundation, followed by the development of Life Skills – Responsible behaviour, building self esteem, positive thinking, physical exercise, effective communication and the development of new habits form the cornerstones of this process. I couldn’t help feeling that most teens could benefit from this process, addict or not. In “group” and individually, with the facilitation and help of highly trained counsellors, residents learn how to quell and manage anxiety, insecurities, decision-making, anger bursts, mind control, manipulation and taking stock of thoughts.
Parents of addicts are encouraged to walk every step of the way. Healing Wings facilitate a family programme where resources are put in place to maintain this involvement that will ultimately assist in the reintegration of the resident into family and society.
Both centres work with associated support groups – Tough Love, AA, Al-Anon, NA , etc., around the country. They strongly advise family members and loved ones to institute an on going support structure.
And of course, there is education. Purpose College work with the Brainline system. They are the leading distance learning forum in South Africa, offering the IEB and National Senior Certificate syllabus. This self-study method encourages independence and responsibility and is facilitated by recovering addict and dedicated teacher, Louise. “Its an incredible model of education. It’s very individual, very personal, and of the highest standard. Each student work at their individual pace, and are assessed every step of the way. I am here to guide and to support”. I arrived in the classroom unannounced – students were busy, engaged and involved with their work.
Both the Purpose College and the Healings Wings Adult Centre offer a myriad of extra mural programmes. The Equine course offers residents the opportunity to work with horses (studies have proved the significant change in the lives of addicts once they have interacted and persevered with riding and caring for horses). The Culinary Course gives participants a chance to emerge with a qualification as a chef and when I went into the kitchen, it was alive with fun and creativity. There is a First Aid Course, Music lessons, art Classes, rock climbing, wood work, hikes, tennis and of course, soccer and rugby.
Healings Wings and the residents are also very committed to community work and giving back. Giles explains that it is only by giving back, that we can receive. The act of kindness without expected return is a very empowering gesture. Healing Wings is closely involved with the nearby Mankele community, supports an orphanage, soup kitchens, local prisons and hospitals. Every year, a group of residents dance for the old age home – in gum boots!
But in-between this, there is much harder work to be done. Becoming sober and choosing a life of sobriety is monumentally difficult. As we wrap up, Giles adds that even the most seemingly helpless of addicts have a chance. All they need is the decision to become sober. The staff here know the journey, they have lived this thorny path. (Except for the nursing staff, all are recovering addicts). “We give the residents a toolkit for change – spiritually, mentally and physically. And of course, nothing is achieved without God”.
There are many families like ours out there. Families who have been ravaged by the chaos and destruction of addiction. There are countless mothers and fathers who wait in hope, for their sons or daughters to return home – holding on to hope which is as thin and flimsy as a spiderweb. It is a dark horrific journey for both the addict and the people who love them. And there is no guarantee. Hilton is testimony to that.
Healing Wings and Purpose College are a light in that thick dark fog. After my time in those mountains, I returned to our home, to our teenage boys, thankful for Healings Wings. Thankful that there is a place that truly understands addiction. I am wary of my path and that of my sons, as we enter into the somewhat unpredictable chapter of experimentation and adolescent behaviour. Knowing that there is help if things go wrong, makes it a little easier.
Because for all we know, without that sort of help, that hotel room in Sao Paolo is a reality for many desperate addicts.