Cowboy Therapy

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Valley News Issue: October 2015
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An unorthodox rehab facility treats addiction with hard work and peer-based counseling at a Gilbert ranch. Will it work?

On a bright August morning in Gilbert, the young men at Welcome Home Ranch care for horses and weld fences. Strapping and polite, they tip their hats, shake hands and say “sir” and “ma’am.” Despite the Western Mayberry vibe, the ranch isn’t the family farm of modern-day Cleavers. It’s an addiction rehab center, and those friendly fellows are recovering addicts.

The ranch is the third treatment facility founded by the John Volken Foundation, a nonprofit established by German-Canadian mega-entrepreneur John Volken, former CEO of United Furniture Warehouse. After living a rags-to-riches tale himself, Volken wanted to put his personal philosophy – “We should first learn, then earn, then return” – into practice to help people in need. Though he’s never struggled with addiction himself, Volken saw a need in the community and, after researching treatment facilities in North America and Europe, started his foundation in 2004 to open John Volken Academy treatment centers. The resulting three facilities, in Vancouver, B.C., Seattle and now Gilbert, are the antitheses of cushy, celebrity-catering rehabs like Promises or Cirque Lodge. No chefs. No yoga. No individual therapy. No smoking. No caffeine. Instead of floating from therapy session to therapy session, JVA “students” must work – an average of 55 hours per week.

“The idea is, the more they work, the easier it is for them to get their minds clear,” says cowboy and ranch manager Johnny Haggard. “John’s feeling is, you gotta give back. Where these men have taken away from the public, we give back by trying to offer services.”

Of the many factors that distinguish the JVA program from typical rehabs (see sidebar), the big stunner is the time commitment and cost: two years – often a few months more, depending on each student’s progress – for $6,000 total. Its unorthodox approach – no medical staff, the intense schedule – can be polarizing, even for adherents.

“I’ve been to nine other programs,” says Ryan (last name withheld per JVA policy), 23, a recent program graduate. “When I first got here, I wasn’t really ready to change... but after eight months being here, this place kind of has a way of breaking you down. The whole philosophy is it breaks you down and builds you back up, brand new.”

Tate, 35, says he’s also felt a sea change in his recovery. “I was at a point in a 15-year mess [of using] where I was willing to try something different,” he says. “I’m so grateful for the academy because not only are you allowed to learn and grow and receive the guidance and the teaching and instruction, but you also have the time that you really need to turn the page and figure it out.”

The program has doubters. “It sounds like prison,” says addiction psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Gitlow. “Being in that closed environment for a two-year period is very unusual. Certainly there are some positive aspects about that – the individual is likely to stay sober... to get good feedback from their groups. But there may also be negative aspects, and without it being studied, I don’t know what those are.”

Because Volken and many of the students belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, people may assume JVA is faith-based. It’s not, though Volken does view his work through a personal spiritual lens.

Success rates are hard to measure. “I can tell you the success rate with our program is very high. We keep in touch with a lot of students,” JVA vice chair Carson Brown says. “I don’t think you can... measure the success rate. You could be 10 years sober and... mess up. Nothing’s a guarantee. Just because you graduate from a two-year program doesn’t mean you’re never going to use ever again.”

JVA program director James Georgianna, a recovering addict himself, says he was drawn to the emphasis on work. “In real life it’s like, yeah, I have to work, I have to go to school, and I still have to balance all these feelings and the want to use,” Georgianna says. “I thought this was a unique place... You have responsibilities in the workforce, but at the same time you’re working on yourself. Because that’s what everyone has to do, right?”