Farm provides a place for women recovering from addiction

By Robin Goist and David Petkiewicz -

NORTH ROYALTON, Ohio (AP) — Jacque Jones watched as an autumn breeze sent dozens of leaves to land between rows of red peppers and eggplants. Chickens clucked at her feet.

“My life couldn’t be much better,” Jones said.

Jones is one of eight women who live at the Woodrow Project recovery house and farm. The North Royalton recovery house and farm started in February as a way to provide stability and training to women in recovery, Woodrow Project executive director Erin Helms said.

“There’s no treatment here,” Helms said. “It feels like a home.” Residents may attend their own counseling, psychiatry or medical appointments.

On the farm, women grow and harvest a variety of produce and collect eggs from their chickens in the hoop house. They’ve also made some fruit jams, jellies and pies. They sell their items at several farmers markets.

The farm includes a five-bedroom home where women sleep, eat meals together, lead recovery meetings, have regular house meetings and socialize. The Woodrow Project is funded through grants from the Cuyahoga County ADAMHS board, Ohio Recovery Housing, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the USDA for the farm part, among others.

Jones, the house manager with a particularly green thumb, oversees their farm and greenhouse.

“Agriculture has been my life, all my life,” Jones said. “I’m a farmer’s daughter. So it’s a gift, for me, to be given an opportunity to teach and live here and be able to have my chickens and be able to help women in recovery.”

Each day, Jones takes joy in teaching the other women about farming, while they all learn from each other about recovery.

“I’ve had a beautiful experience here,” said Brandi Gillen, who drank for 23 years. “Every day, there’s something that I learn that I can apply, and it’s a structured environment that I didn’t have to go back to when I came out of in-patient treatment.”

There are standards in place for the safety of all residents, Helms said.

“There is a problem with unregulated sober living,” Helms said. “We go through a certification process.”

Just as the recovery house feels like a home, the recovery farm feels like a job. Women are paid for their work on the farm as part of Woodrow Project’s job training program.

“Many job training programs are not designed for women in recovery,” Helms said. “Many are unpaid and won’t work around their schedules.”

The women spend part of their day working in the farm or hoop house, but may also take some time to meditate by the fire pit, go to a recovery meeting or attend social outings, whether it be a sporting event or a camping trip.

“One vital part of the recovery house is that social aspect,” Helms said. “They do things that normal families do together. Debbie cooks, and-“

“People eat!” Debbie chimed in.

“We plant it, pick it and then somebody cooks it,” Jones said. “They put the work in out there and we reap the rewards in here, and share it.”

The Woodrow Project also sells items at local farmers markets. While some of the job training centers on horticulture, Helms also has the women develop business plans and learn how to work through them.

“As much as the training program is fantastic and wonderful, the recovery house and the recovery part is really what comes first,” Helms said.

Many people who come out of in-patient treatment don’t have a safe, structured or supportive place to go.

“They may have a very loving family, or they may have their own house, but it’s really being able to look at addiction as the chronic disease that it is, and being able to treat it in a chronic disease manner, versus an acute care of detox or just in-patient,” Helms said. “It’s about being able to really hit on the three parts of the chronic disease – physical, psychological and social.”

In addition to the other women in the house, there is a certified peer supporter who works with the women, Helms said.

Each house manager, like Jones, has maintained sobriety for at least two years.

After going through treatment for her alcoholism, Debbie Sisson moved into the Woodrow Project recovery house and farm in North Royalton with a very small social circle.

“I had pretty much demolished every single relationship that I had, so I came here with no relationships, and I certainly couldn’t do it on my own,” Sisson said.

Sisson found a sisterhood with the other women in the house that she had never experienced.

“They genuinely like me because of the person I am. They’ve seen me go from really nothing, the bare minimum, to build my life the way I’ve been building it. They’ve seen me really become the woman I never thought I could be,” Sisson said.

“It’s an organic relationship,” she said. “It’s an organic relationship because we all started like this. We all started from the bottom and we’re working up, and we’re doing it together.”

Being close with so many women is a new experience for Gillen.

“In my active addiction and alcoholism, I thought I was more comfortable with the boys and could hang and drink, and had some pretty rough times,” Gillen said. “So it’s been a blessing because these women are my strong sisters. We have so much more strength than we give ourselves credit for, and we bring it out of each other.”

Gillen says she’s made strides in her recovery and personal growth since coming to the Woodrow Project. Like a plant that flowers because it receives care, love and attention, so too do the women blossom thanks to the support they receive from and extend to the other residents.

“That has been the greatest experience for me, is the ‘we’ of this house,” she said. “Having a family, people who understand, who want me to succeed, who help me and challenge me to better myself and to keep me honest and accountable…

“It’s been a learning experience that I can never repay,” Gillen said.

Dozens of women are on the waitlist, Helms said.

The residents hope to expand the recovery farm for 2019 by installing a second hoop house. They are using the winter months to concoct business plans and learn the skills of how to implement them.

By Robin Goist and David Petkiewicz