At 85, And 61 Years Sober, Jeanne Mcalister Has Saved The Lives Of Tens Of Thousands Of Individuals

“When I get sick and show up at work anyway, people say, “Why don’t you go home and rest?” Well, the answer to that is, “When I am at home…

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“When I get sick and show up at work anyway, people say, “Why don’t you go home and rest?” Well, the answer to that is, “When I am at home, I am not inspired.” It is people who make my life worthwhile. When I am so sick that I absolutely have to stay home, or on the weekends, holidays or when our offices are closed, I am grateful that I still have people calling me on my cell phone to get into detox and I can help get them in — that inspires me.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeanne McAlister, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of McAlister Institute. Jeanne is a pioneer in the field of substance abuse recovery. As a recovering alcoholic herself, she has used her experience to build an agency that is founded on empathy and hope and dedicated to serving those who suffer. She constantly advocates for responsive and needed treatment services and has developed programs that have evolved and grown to meet the needs of San Diegans. Jeanne has received numerous awards and recognition. Most recently, she was named the National Alliance on Mental Illness San Diego’s 2017 Lifetime Champion for her decades of service aimed at providing innovative programs specially tailored for co-occurring individuals and their families. In 2014, Jeanne received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her leadership in the area of alcohol, tobacco, and drug prevention. At 85, Jeanne continues to lead the agency to the top of its field. Through her vision, tens of thousands of individuals have successfully regained their lives with the help of McAlister Institute’s wide variety of programs. In November, Jeanne celebrated 61 years clean and sober.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Any “backstory” on my work in the nonprofit field has to begin with the fact that I lived through my own struggle with alcohol and drug use. As a young single mother, I wanted better, but I could not seem to get there on my own. When I finally became “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” I found recovery through A.A. in 1956. I was twenty-four at the time, and back then, I was one of the only young people in the meetings that I went to, and there were a lot of old timers who thought I was too young to be “done” yet. However, I really wanted sobriety; I got an A.A. sponsor, worked steps, and I have not had to have a drink or take a drug since.

During my first 14 years of recovery, I built a new life and had a good career in the for-profit business world. At that point, I got into therapy for myself, and the human potential movement came into my life. While in groups I discovered that I had a natural ability for group work and helping others in the group process. Searching for a way to do my group work for a living, I was introduced to Dr. Tom Rusk, who wanted to hire me to sell the need for drug-free workplace policies to companies. Initially, I told him that I didn’t think that the San Diego business world was ready for a woman to do that kind of work, and he might want to look at having a man do it instead. This was 45 years ago, and San Diego was still very much a man’s business world (as was the rest of the country). The minute I got in my car to drive away from that meeting, I thought, “Why did I turn that job down?” I wrote Dr. Rusk a letter that he still has to this day, it said: “Dear Dr. Rusk, I must have been out of my head, because I am the only person who can do that job for you, so I would like to re-interview with you.” He graciously interviewed me again, and I went to work for him for about five years. Over that time, he contracted with the County of San Diego to provide outpatient drug and alcohol treatment services in East and North County, and I ran the program in East County for him. Then Dr. Rusk became extremely disenchanted with the County and decided he was done working with them and quit. Well, we had all these clients we were serving whose lives were being changed as they found recovery from addiction, I could not just give up on them. My solution was to form a nonprofit corporation and fight to continue doing the work. The contract Dr. Rusk gave back to the County was put out to bid, and my new nonprofit responded and received our first contract award. From there on, it has been one new program after another as opportunities to meet the needs of people with substance abuse disorders are identified.

Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

One of the most interesting projects would have to be the Enhanced Services Component we are adding to one of our seven outpatient Regional Recovery Centers. The enhanced services are provided in addition to the Center’s non-residential Substance Use Disorder treatment and recovery services. The project meets an urgent need in the South Bay Region of San Diego for targeted services for clients who are experiencing homelessness and have other high levels of need, such as co-occurring mental health disorders and primary health issues. Without this increased support, these clients were faced with too many barriers to access or succeed in treatment. The project includes providing engagement, case management, coordination of care and assessment services, as well as offering an range of support and advocacy services to help the clients address their housing and health issues and to support their long-term success.

We are also in the process of a project to provide the women and children of Kiva, our residential substance abuse treatment program, with a greater level of integrated health care by adding a dedicated part-time Registered Nurse (RN) to the program. Research shows that people with substance abuse disorders have a nine times greater risk of congestive heart failure, a twelve times greater risk of liver cirrhosis, and twelve times the risk of developing pneumonia. Integrating primary and addiction care to address interrelated physical illnesses is crucial. Our goal is to improve the long-term health, wellness, and recovery of clients. Since many of our clients arrive with complex medical conditions, prenatal needs, and a sparse history of non-emergency medical care, linking them to primary health care is a priority. The RN will serve as a patient navigator for Kiva clients and a liaison for acute medical care, helping our clients access primary health services. The RN will also arrange medical screenings and schedule health maintenance visits, take the lead in health and wellness treatment planning, and provide wellness training for program staff that covers preventive health, identification of common illnesses and levels of urgency. When on-site, the RN can triage medical needs and concerns that come up, offer a professional assessment of urgency, and then mediate with the primary care provider on the clients’ behalf.

So tell me a bit more about how your organization helps people?

McAlister Institute was founded in 1977 with the goal of providing affordable, effective treatment and recovery programs for people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. We’ve since become one of San Diego County’s largest alcohol and drug treatment providers. Today, our services span prevention, outreach, intervention, education, outpatient treatment, residential treatment, and sober living. We now have 28 programs that serve nearly 9,000 adults, teens, and families annually, most of whom are low-income, under-served, indigent, with many being homeless. In part, this number so high, due to our long-standing policy that no one be turned away because they are unable to pay. In 1981, we opened Kiva, the first of what is now 11 gender-specific treatment programs that respond to the unique challenges of women with and without children. At the time of its opening, Kiva was the first of its kind in San Diego County and one of only five recovery programs in the United States that allowed children to live with their mothers during treatment. We are recognized as a pioneer in women’s SUD treatment services, and women and their children continue to benefit from Kiva’s services. Our age-appropriate services specifically designed for adolescents began in 1990 and now include five adolescent outpatient Teen Recovery Centers, three adolescent residential treatment programs, and AOD education at a juvenile detention facility.

Our mission is to provide professional services that heal the lives of individuals and families, improving the quality of life in communities through the miracle of recovery. Our commitment to that mission guides us in continuing to pioneer critical services and innovative projects to meet the needs of our clients.

Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?

There have been so many people that our programs have helped over the past 40 years, so it is the most recent that comes first to my mind. I had stopped by the grocery store on my way home from work and this woman came up to me and said, “Are you Jeanne McAlister?” I answered, yes, and she told me, “I went through your program 26 years ago. I have raised my children; I own my own home; I have a really good job; and I just want to say thank you.” Those moments, meeting people whose lives have been restored because of our programs, make everything that is difficult worthwhile.

Those kinds of encounters happen frequently. Recently, I was at the airport and a young woman ran out from behind a kiosk to say, “Oh, Jeanne McAlister, I went through your program!” There she was, obviously healthy, happy, and employed. It just fills my heart with happiness, yet is somehow very humbling, too. Those kinds of chance meetings and shared gratitude for our services make all the hard times disappear.

This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?

What drives me in this work is the inspiration that I get from the people around me; not just the clients, but the people I work with, as well. When I get sick and show up at work anyway, people say, “Why don’t you go home and rest?” Well, the answer to that is, “When I am at home, I am not inspired.” It is people who make my life worthwhile. When I am so sick that I absolutely have to stay home, or on the weekends, holidays or when our offices are closed, I am grateful that I still have people calling me on my cell phone to get into detox and I can help get them in — that inspires me. I guess it is my 12-step work. I make my cell phone number public, so anyone in need can call me at any time. I let people at work know that I do not expect anyone to do that when I am gone, but it is my way of doing my 12-step work — answering the phone, talking to a parent whose child is an addict who needs help or to someone who needs to get into detox. I don’t get a chance to do 12-step work outside of my work-world. If I go to a 12-step meeting, even if I am quiet, people recognize me for my work in treatment. Then, it is all about my work instead of the meeting, which not only keeps me from participating but can also be disruptive. I feel I can still fulfill my 12-step work by taking those crisis calls. What other agency can a person call at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning and have the CEO answer and give the help the person needs? So that is my 12-step work — it is my gift back for my sobriety. It drives and inspires me.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I’m grateful for Doctor Tom Rusk for seeing in me at the time, something that I couldn’t see in myself, and mentoring me and training me. Dr. Rusk was a very brilliant man and a brilliant psychiatrist. He was also very avant gard. This is the kind of guy Tom Rusk was: He had a patient would not look at him; he would keep his eyes down on the ground and would not look up at Tom. So, Tom got up from his chair, went over and laid down on the ground in front of the patient and said, “Now you’ll look at me.” And the patient looked at Tom! I always loved that story, because that was Tom. He was unconventional. He could go to church and talk to a church group and curse as he talked, and no one would think anything of it. You and I, we couldn’t do it, but Tom could. He was just a fun person and I loved him.

Tom believed in brief therapy. He wrote a book on the topic and he practiced it. He would say, “I’m going to give you somethings to do and you’re going to do them and they’re going to help you. If you don’t do them, don’t come back.” He said, “If you don’t get well or have some change in your life in the six to eight weeks that I see you, I don’t want to see you anymore, because you’re not serious. You can go to somebody for three years and pay them $200,000, let them listen to you with nothing ever changing in your life — but don’t come to me, because you need to change your life in the six to eight weeks that I see you.” He would never survive in today’s clinical world, but he believed in me and my ability to be successful in the field when I needed it most. I’ll always be grateful for that.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

1) When I first started, I wish someone had told me that I would have restrictions. I didn’t know that in the beginning. I thought we got our non-profit status and we could just do what we wanted to do. I learned quickly that was not so; there were State, County, City restrictions; there were contract restrictions, clinical restrictions. Knowing how stringent and countless these were when I first started operating programs would have been helpful.

2) I also wish that I had known that a good leader is not in front of the pack, but in the back of the pack, because I went through some tough learning experiences coming to that knowledge. I read the analogy of how the leader of the wolf-pack leads from behind the pack and thought how true it was: At the front of the wolf pack are the old and sick members, who walk in front to set the pace, so they do not get left behind. The next group are a few of the strongest members of the pack, who protect those in front if there is an attack. Next, there is the largest group in the middle, who are always protected from any attack, both from the front and the back. Behind them is the last group, who are also among the strongest and best; their job is to protect the back of the pack if there is an attack. Then last of all is one lone wolf, the leader. The leader makes sure no one is left behind and keeps the pack together on the right path. The leader is always ready to go in the direction needed to protect the entire pack.

Leadership is not about doing everything, or even being the most visible. Leadership is about leading from behind — making sure the team is taken care of and on the right path. At one time, I did everything myself. I thought I was supposed to, or that I was the best person for every task that came up. Since then, I’ve learned to let go; other people might not do it the way I would have done it, they will do it their own way, but it will get done. We have grown so much more as an agency and a team since I have been in the back of the pack than we grew when I was leading from the front.

3) I wish that someone had told me that a non-profit doesn’t have to be poor — your programs don’t have to be impoverished. In the early days, I thought scrimping was expected. For some reason, since our mission is to help our clients live better lives, there’s a belief that we are supposed to use aging equipment and sit at decrepit desks to portray the role of a long-suffering charity. I wish I had been clear on the fact that “nonprofit” is a tax standing, not a profitability standing. Of course, there is always a need for more services and more funding to provide them, but that does not mean currently funded services are required to appear needy.

4) I wish I had learned early on that failure is not failure, it is just a way of being told that I needed to go in a different direction. Failure showed me where I should not be; there was something to be learned or another path to be taken. If someone had told me that sometimes things do not go as planned and that is fine, I like to think I would have taken the failures with much more grace. There can be more learned in a single failure than what can be learned in a series of successes. I have learned that what I planned will not happen exactly how I thought it would, but that is okay. Today, I get the idea going and trust the process and allow any failure along the way to be like a compass, pointing me in another direction.

5) The fifth thing that I wish that I had known is that I would become addicted to the work. I really didn’t realize that I would become so passionate about it. I don’t know that it would it have changed anything, but I wish I would have known. One facet of being passionate about this work is that I have softened. In the beginning, I was so much more rigid. As you work in this field, you become flexible and embrace change more readily. For example, I had a program manager who was not doing so well in his role and needed to be reassigned, no matter how badly I had wanted it to work out. Yesterday, I hired a new person for the position, and as we were talking and he was asking me questions about how I wanted him to proceed, I wanted to cry because I was so happy to have the positive change. Now, that is soft!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. 🙂

I would want to talk to someone who could hear and actually do something to help the struggle that nonprofits have under all the paperwork that we are required to complete. Millions of hours each year are wasted by nonprofits trying to comply with the unrealistic requirements of some funders. I am not sure who the person to talk to would be — it would need to be someone who has the power to make a change. I used to want to talk to the Drug Czar under Obama, Michael Botticelli. He was gay, in recovery, and had been sober nearly thirty years. I saw him on 60 Minutes, where he said he almost found it easier to come out as being a gay man than it was to come out as being an alcoholic in recovery. He said people were more accepting of him being gay than they were of him having had an addiction. I feel like he would have been someone with an understanding of the need and the reality of the struggle, who had the power to help. Of course, he has moved out of the position now; but I still hope to find the right person to help do something about the changes that are needed in the field.

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