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Community: This DC group's novel approach to fighting addiction

Conservative Review

“It all started with a young man who wanted to make a difference in the world, and he happened to be the man that I married,” Janice Gordon tells Conservative Review

Janice is the current president of the Community Action Group, the largest residential addiction treatment center in Washington, D.C., which expects to celebrate the opening of its newly renovated community center in the Capitol Hill East neighborhood “any day now.”

What began as a small group of parishioners led by a man with a vision to help the needy has blossomed over the decades to become a beacon of hope and a pillar of the community just a few blocks away from the Capitol Building.

Janice spoke about about the program with a passion that belies her years of dedicated service to what Jesus Christ called “the least of these.”

Community is key

One of the key factors that has allowed the Community Action Group to gain such a tremendous presence in D.C. over the years has been its community-focused model; this allows them to go beyond traditional means of recovery and look for innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to combatting substance abuse and addiction. “That has been one of the pluses about CAG, that we’re not doing things by rote,” Janice says.

In addition to outpatient and inpatient recovery services, CAG also devotes its efforts to non-traditional approaches to addiction. These involve Christmas and other holiday parties, Thanksgiving dinners, alumni events, dance marathons, talent shows, bringing in local musicians, and even holding poetry-writing classes.

“Addiction has an emotional base that robs the spirit,” Janice said. “When you get people to get into themselves and really express, it creates a tremendous outpouring of feelings and thoughts and move past where they are.”

While CAG covers what Janice calls “the basics” of addiction treatment — counseling, nurses, doctors, inpatient and outpatient programming – it also provides something no government grant or agency never could: a real community that stays together supports each other.

“When [some of the clients] were in residence, they banded together like brothers and sisters,” Janice tells CR “And one of the critical things that was an outgrowth of that was that they created an alumni association that is so strong.”

That sort of communal ownership is essential to the mission, explains board member Ann Quarzo. Not only do clients recover, but the community aspect of it all encourages them to renew and inspire those around them.

In addition to the spiritual and mental sides of the group, the physical recovery aspect “emphasizes becoming productive members of society and giving back to the community,” Ann continued. This includes conducting cleanup days in the neighborhood, Christmas tree sales, building and planting tree boxes, and cleaning the streets in the business corridor.

“CAG has always been about making our neighborhoods better places,” Ann explained to Conservative Review. “Carrying out this philosophy in our programs instills a sense of community pride and responsibility in our clients.”

It’s all a part of the greater mission of “giving back what was so freely given to you,” Ann concluded.

“That’s at no cost to the client, to the government, or to anyone else,” Janice remarked. “That’s where you can really measure resources.”

How it happened

The Community Action Group was started in 1988 by Harold “Hal” J. Gordon, Janice, and a few other parishioners who were all part of a Bible study at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Catholic Church on Capitol Hill.

The couple met when they were both federal employees. Janice was Catholic, and Hal wasn’t at the time, but began attending mass with her and eventually converted. While attending Holy Comforter Catholic Church (now Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian), Hal was inspired by the church’s pastor, Fr. Raymond Kemp and grew to share the priest’s passion for helping alcoholics and addicts.

Hal’s crystalizing moment came when he was walking to a building that would eventually become the group’s long-time headquarters when he saw a moving pile of snow that turned out to be a homeless man, thus driving his inspiration to help the city’s homeless and addicted communities.

Hal would eventually approach Pastor Kemp with the request of taking charge of the homeless arm of the ministry himself. “He thought that the priest should be focused more on saving souls, and that the congregation should step up to the plate and help out,” explained Janice. “Fast-forward to a year later, and CAG was formed.”

Janice took over after her husband’s sudden death in 2008. But even after the loss of its principle founder, CAG has continued to grow, albeit with a new set of challenges.

A building problem

One of the biggest trials that Janice has faced over the past few years was the difficulty of renovating the group’s community center at 15th and Independence in Southeast D.C., where they conducted many of their events and programs.

“You want to talk about a perfect storm?” Janice laughed in recollection. “Everything that went wrong could have … you can’t imagine the nightmares.”

The renovation project began seven years ago in 2009, only to incur a host of problems over the years, which included a major wall collapse, constant contractor turnover, and massively swelling project costs.

Those budgets problems fall hard on small nonprofits, especially ones that find it hard to raise funds in the first place. “It’s easy to get money for education and the arts,” Janice says, but “[addiction] is not the attractive cause.”

Brand “new” city; same old challenges

Another challenge is that of aiding the addiction, poverty, and homelessness fight in a changing city. While the exterior of the nation’s capital may be changing with constant development and new luxury apartments seeming to pop up everywhere, the old problems are still around.

“The city has just been so dressed up with all this newness, but the problems have not been eradicated,” she says. “In equal measure to the newness that’s been created … you’ve [still] got folks down there bobbing and weaving, intertwining. And I think folks just aren’t seeing it anymore because they’re focused so much on the newness.”

But despite years of tribulation from renovation projects, fundraising difficulties, and a changing community with unchanging problems, what keeps Janice Gordon going is the same thing that has done it all this time: the joy and satisfaction of changing lives through recovery and giving people a second chance.

More than 10,000 people have come through our doors over the years. These are individuals and families whose lives have been changed,” says Janice.

“That’s the kind of thing that fuels my passion,” she added. “Hal always said: ‘This is the best job there is, and this is my last job.’ He said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else, because there aren’t many people who get the privilege to be so trusted.”

For more on the Community Action Group, visit here.

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