Olympia House Brings “Whatever It Takes” Approach to Recovery

Program utilizes individual therapy, counseling and farm work to help people reclaim their lives. “Addiction has been looked at as a moral weakness in our society, when it’s really a disease,” says founder.

In 1970, the St. Anthony Foundation built a home in the tiny farm community of Bloomfield, off Valley Ford Road, to help people struggling with addiction.

Its residents, many of them from the streets of San Francisco, helped milk cows and take care of the farm while receiving treatment.

But in 2008, the 315-acre farm west of Petaluma closed for lack of funding.

And it stayed shuttered until about a month ago when it re-opened as Olympia House, a short-term chemical dependency program that prides itself in taking an individualized approach to recovery.

“In a 28-day program, we don’t have time to get into a pissing match about whether or not there’s a God,” says Founder and Executive Director Dr. Wayne Thurston, referring to 12-step programs, which can alienate non-believers because they use a religious vocabulary.

“We want to stabilize the brain and find something, anything, that makes the person want to stay clean…Whatever works, that’s our philosophy.”

Thurston, who selected the location in part because he lives nearby, has worked in private practice in Marin County and most recently was the Senior Vice President of Operations at Anka Behavioral Health, a mental health company with more than 80 facilities around the country.

Perched atop a hill and surrounded by a dairy and a horse ranch, Olympia House could be a yoga retreat where busy city folk escape the stress of modern living.

There are clean and simple rooms, a communal kitchen and living room and sweeping views of the valley below.

But the work that happens here for many is literally a matter of life or death.

During their stay, patients receive substance abuse counseling and psychotherapy while helping take care of the water buffalo and participating in equine therapy using horses on the property.

The facility also has LGBT therapists who lead specialized support groups focused on issues such as internalized homophobia as well as others that focus on drug, alcohol, sex addictions, obsessive compulsive behavior and anger issues.

On the weekends, Olympia House hosts multi-family therapy, when family members are invited to come and every Monday, there is a 7:30pm Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that’s open to the public.

“Addiction has been looked at as a moral weakness in our society, when it’s really a disease, a chronic terminal illness,” says Thurston. “But society hasn’t accepted it as such yet.”

The land is owned by Joe and Kathy Tresch, dairy farmers who purchased the property in 2011. But because of problems obtaining a permit from the county, the Tresches decided to lease the land to Thurston. Olympia House is named after Joe’s grandmother who settled in the area in 1905.

“Like most families, our family has had members who’ve struggled with alcohol, so when Wayne approached us about starting a facility there, we agreed,” says Kathy Tresch.

“I believe that doing purposeful work on a farm and working with animals and environment can let you connect with something outside yourself. People who are struggling with addiction are often feeling really bad inside and working with animals can make you feel better.”

A stay at Olympia House is not cheap and runs $14,000 for one month ($12,500 if you share a room), more than similar facilities. But Thurston justifies the cost, saying that’s what it takes to hire four therapists and provide residents a full range of services and one-on-one attention. (The home’s capacity is 24 patients).

He also says that the program offers scholarships and reserves 10 percent of its space for people who would otherwise not be able to afford a stay.

Olympia House is the culmination of more than a decade of work for the 55-year-old Thurston, most of it helping people overcome addiction, earning him accolades from colleagues.

“Wayne has expertise in all levels of psycho-therapy and substance abuse, and he’s one of those people you love having on board,” says Naja Boyd, Chief Operating Officer at Anka. “He has experience in private practice and he can really hone in on specific areas and grow them,” she says, adding that Thurston was instrumental in building Anka’s internship program and establishing a partnership with private insurance.

Addiction has been a part of the human experience ever since people figured out how to get intoxicated, says Thurston. And many are predisposed to it, but may not know it until they go through something traumatic, such as losing a child, a spouse or being in combat.

“Under specific circumstances, it just gets ignited,” he says.

Now, under the watchful eye of Thurston and his team and surrounded by the serene beauty of West Sonoma County, people have a chance to put their lives back on track.

By Karina Ioffee, November 12, 2012

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