Okotokian on new path to helping addicts

By: Darlene Casten

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jun 04, 2014 01:48 pm

MD resident Rob Laird with 1835 House executive director John O’Reilly outside their Calgary drug and alcohol rehab facility. Laird is working to fundraise the millions needed for a new building, that will allow the current building to be used for a women’s rehab centre.
MD resident Rob Laird with 1835 House executive director John O’Reilly outside their Calgary drug and alcohol rehab facility. Laird is working to fundraise the millions needed for a new building, that will allow the current building to be used for a women’s rehab centre.
Darlene Casten/OWW

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You could call Rob Laird an addiction addict, but its much better than the days when he was a substance abuse addict – hooked on pain killers that emaciated him, landed him in the hospital and could have taken his life.

The MD of Foothills resident is on his fourth project to help people with debilitating drug and alcohol addictions and he said it was his experience with addiction that make him never want to stop helping others.

The Calgary men’s treatment centre, 1835 House, brought Laird on board five months ago to help them raise the millions of dollars they need to expand an existing men’s treatment facility and create a women’s treatment centre at their existing site.

It was his notoriety as a man who wants to help and is good at making people pay attention that resulted in 1835 House executive director John O’Reilly pick up the phone five months ago and called Laird.

“He has some experience – he was referred,” O’Reilly said. “He knows a quite a few people and he knows a bit about the addiction world.”

Laird is well known in the field with 10 years experience dealing with addicts on the streets of Calgary, in the foothills and really anywhere people need help. After getting past his own addiction to prescription painkillers he was taking for a back injury, Laird went to work for the Dream Centre, where he worked as the intake coordinator. The position saw him roaming the streets of Calgary talking to homeless addicts, meeting with people in detox to offer them extended treatment and working in outlying areas, finding addicts in areas like the foothills, where there are no, or very few, treatment options. While at the Dream Centre Laird became involved when a Calgary drug court was set up. The court kept addicts out of jail and in treatment centres. Once the court was in place Laird screened potential drug court diversions and often was in court with addicts giving honest updates on their progress. From there Laird worked tirelessly for a year-and-a-half trying to get a private drug and alcohol addiction treatment centre opened up in the foothills, but in the end, after looking at two locations – the funding wasn’t there.

1835 House is a men’s 12-step addiction treatment centre that has been operating in Marda Loop for 42 years. For four years they have been working on raising the money to open up a new men’s facility on land they purchased on Centre Street in Calgary. The new facility would allow them to treat 55 men at one time, up from their current capacity of 38. When the new building opens the current facility will undergo a $1 million renovation and open to women, up to 200 women per year who need assistance overcoming their addictions.

Laird said the need for men’s and women’s addiction treatment in southern Alberta and across the Province is huge.

“For women in the Foothills when they go to look for treatment there is one in Lethbridge and a couple in Calgary,” he said. “Right now for woman to get into treatment when they want to is like winning the lottery.”

There are more treatment facilities for men than women, but there is still a need for new treatment centres, said Laird, adding there is typically a month-long wait to get into 1835 House.

The Recovery Acres Society, the not-for-profit group that runs 1835 House is hopeful that will change soon.

The Province is contemplating a $7 million grant application from 1835 House for the new building and O’Reilly said government officials have expressed support for the project and he expects to hear an answer soon.

However, 1835 House needs another $5 million to build the men’s facility and that’s where Laird comes in.

Over the past five months Laird has been working his connections, drawing attention, donors and celebrity sport backing – kicking the project into high gear.

“We are bringing it out of the shadows and into the limelight,” Laird said.

First Laird recruited Olympic figure skater Jaime Sale, who talked to him about her brother’s addiction issues.

Sale recently gave a speech at an 1835 House fundraising concert about her family’s struggle with addiction.

“It is a roller coaster ride with addicts,” she said in an interview with the Western Wheel.

Her brother just completed the program at 1835 House two weeks ago and she said she is so impressed what they do there that she asked what she could do to help.

“I think it’s an amazing cause,” she said, adding it needs to be extended to women. “Why wouldn’t women have a place like this to go to? It is so successful with men, we need this for women.”

Sale recruited fellow Olympians Mark Tewksbury and Kyle Schewfelt and Laird was able to get friends and foothills celebrities Bearcat Murray and Sheldon Kennedy on board.

With all that star power Laird said the project is getting the attention it needs. The Calgary Flames foundation gave 1835 House $100,000 and Sale’s husband Craig Simpson, a former Edmonton Oiler, donated $10,000 from his foundation and is in talks with the Edmonton Oilers to make a donation that matches the one from the Flames.

Laird said they are now working with an accounting firm to create a business plan to present to potential funders and are working on a promo video that will be voiced over by High River television personality Daryl Janz.

Laird said he is reaching out to his connections in the Foothills, including Order of Canada recipient Irene Pfiefer, who also works with the Mustard Seed and his contacts in Calgary, like former drug court judge Jim Ogle.

Laird said Pfiefer is advising him and Ogle has said they would be interested in using the future 1835 House women’s program for their cases.

It is that kind of momentum that Laird said he needs to keep building to see the men’s facility open and the women’s program begin.

“I’m hoping we will be in the (new) building in late fall 2015 or spring 2016,” he said. “The women’s (program) would open soon after that.”

For more information go to recoveryacres.org/breaking-new-ground


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