Feeding his drug and alcohol addiction — and spending time in jail — filled Tyson Airaksinen’s world before he found his way to the New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal.
It’s been three and a half months since the 46-year-old arrived at the centre, which helps men recover from substance abuse and regain their lives, and he said he’s already seen a major change in himself.
Airaksinen, who was living on the Island before going to New Roads, heard about it from an addiction counsellor while in prison.
“I lived drug- and alcohol-addicted for most of my 20s, into my 30s, got in trouble and ended up in the legal system,” he said. Then after eight years of sobriety, he got sucked back into the world of addiction.
“I became complacent and was hit with two significant losses in my life, which led me to a two-and-a-half-year relapse.”
The treatment and recovery offered at New Roads has been remarkable, Airaksinen said.
“Since being here, having that connection again, having brotherhood, a healthy community, I’ve been able to look deeper inside and realize what I was running from.”
Airaksinen was one of the residents chosen to conduct a media tour this past week at New Roads, which has been in operation since 2018 at the site of the region’s former youth-detention centre.
The program is run by Our Place, a downtown agency offering meals and a range of services to the people who are homeless and vulnerable.
Staff there decided it was timely to bring in the media to show what can be done, despite a steady stream of reports about dangerous drugs, struggling addicts and the daily overdose death toll.
“We find ourselves amidst a drug crisis, an overdose crisis and an ever-increasing, record-breaking death toll from drug use in our society,” said Our Place executive director Julian Daly. “I think it can feel like a very dark time we’re in, very bleak and quite hopeless at times.
“Often I think: ‘How are we ever going to get out of this?’ ”
The New Roads centre gives him cause for optimism, Daly said.
“I come here and I’m always uplifted,” he said. “I think New Roads is one of those places that offers real hope in a time of hopelessness, and real light in a time of profound darkness in terms of drug use.”
The hope comes from the men who have entered the New Roads program, he said, “and are courageously transforming their lives … and moving onto healthy, sober, productive lives when they leave here.”
‘We are so thankful you found him’
Daly said residential facilities like New Roads work best when they are unisex, and Our Place has aspirations of opening a similar complex for women.
New Roads opened with $4.7 million in funding from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. B.C. Housing provided a $300,000 grant for renovations, a $1-a-year lease and coverage of property taxes for three years. Island Health contributed $300,000 in annual operating funds.
While the province provides most of the funding, donations have also been important to the program, Daly said.
He talked about an email from the parents of a recent New Roads resident, crediting the program for saving their son’s life.
“His addiction had taken him to a place he felt he was never coming back from, and we are so thankful you found him,” the parents said. “Since he left the program, he has been living with us and attending meetings every day, eating well and working. We’ve seen a level of responsibility in him that we’ve not seen for years.
“Our message to you and your entire team is thank you. The work you do matters and in the case of our son, we believe you were his last hope.”
New Roads director Cheryl Diebel said the program has important features that make it unique, including how long residents stay at the facility.
“It’s nine to 24 months long,” she said. “We recognize that for the people and the men that we support here, they have complex issues. So having a short term 30-, 60-, 90-day program wouldn’t be enough in order to support them through their recovery journey.”
Up to 40 men stay there at a time. The youngest has been 20 and the oldest 72.
“It’s never too late, never too early,” Airaksinen said.
Men who come to the centre are there by choice and can leave at any time, Daly said.
To be eligible, men need to be at least 19, have moderate to severe substance use, be “highly motivated” to make a positive change in their lives, and be psychiatrically stable and able to participate in group therapy and education sessions. Those with “medium to high” interaction with the criminal justice system and a history of homelessness get priority.
Airaksinen began his tour in the medical area, and pointed out that there is a doctor on-site three days a week and a nurse five days a week. Residents can take part in specialized opioid-addiction therapy, which has proven to be very effective, he said. “We get all our medical needs met.”
Each man is assigned to a counsellor who he sees at least once a week, in addition to all of the other services, Airaksinen said.
The program has four phases that residents advance through as they gain confidence, learn life skills and discover how to change certain behaviours, he said.
Over time, they move into skills such as creating resumes and finding outside work that can be tailored to the schedule they follow at the centre.
That results in a gradual re-entry to the wider community and eventually a place of their own, Airaksinen said.
One option outside the centre is a home in Saanich where up to six residents can live as they shift into post-program life. The house was purchased by three members of the public and donated to the centre.
“That gives them a very safe and sober integration into the community,” Airaksinen said.
Exercise and music therapy
The centre includes a cultural room, run by a “very loved” Indigenous elder, a sweat lodge built by residents, an exercise room with donated equipment, a gymnasium and a therapeutic garden.
Airaksinen said that exercise lets the men “give back to the bodies they were abusing.”
As a former devotee of martial arts, he said the physical aspect of recovery is a focus for him, and he has lost about 25 pounds during his stay.
Another favourite activity has been music therapy, where the residents discuss their emotions and “bring a song to each emotion,” he said.
The therapeutic garden, a greenhouse where the centre’s vegetables are grown and a chicken coop with a few dozen chickens have been made possible through public donations, Daly said.
“The community has been very supportive, very, very generous.”
The garden was transformed into a therapeutic place through one individual’s $800,000 donation, Airaksinen said.
“This was a beaten-down, concrete-and-gravel yard,” he said. “It was in rough shape.”
He said that when he saw the garden after coming from the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, “it gave me a sense of comfort.”
“I smelled roses, I saw hummingbirds, and I was relieved and very happy.”
Airaksinen said an important feature of the centre is that the residents are integral to how it runs.
“All the work here maintenance-wise, all the food cooked, all the cleanliness is all done by residents,” he said.
Daly said that about 10 former residents have gone on to work in maintaining the Our Place building on Pandora Avenue, while another earned a social-work degree and is back at New Roads as an employee.
He said Airaksinen and some others have sold crafts they have made — in Airaksinen’s case, he has learned to make wallets and other leather goods — at the Moss Street Market.
“I was very grateful to be part of that and it was my first step into the community outside,” Airaksinen said.
Donations to New Roads and Our Place can be made at ourplacesociety.com.
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