Sober space for Islanders fighting addictions proves popular
'Even when they slip we let them know that's OK, you can still do it'
A Charlottetown drop-in social centre for people recovering from addictions has seen the number of people coming through its doors climb steadily since opening in November.
Sister Laura Kelly opened SAFE after seeing a lack of community-oriented spaces for people with addictions who are sober at the time.
One of the worst things for someone trying to get well is to isolate.— Sister Laura Kelly
At first only about a dozen people came to the centre but now nightly attendance is typically double that, and sometimes nearly 50 people are there — a response Kelly calls "totally awesome."
"It's been busy for me and for our volunteers, but in all actuality I'm very impressed with the level of support in the community. People love the place," she said.
"There's been times I felt overwhelmed, and other times I've felt so full of joy," she said. "The stuff that needs to be done sometimes overwhelms me but on the other side it's all worth it."
'Without the pull of alcohol'
SAFE stands for Sober and Friendly Environment, and the centre is open to adults under 40.
In recovery for 28 years herself, Kelly said she wanted to create a sober environment for people to hang out, socialize and have fun without drugs or alcohol.
"I worked as an addictions counsellor for a number years and I just got tired of watching people die. It seems lately there are more drugs around and it's getting even worse since I've started," Kelly said.
"I wanted to have a space where they could go, come have some leisure, some fun without the pull of alcohol or substances."
'You're allowed back tomorrow'
As long as people are sober they are welcome at the centre, Kelly said.
"Because even when they slip, we let them know that's OK, you can still do it. Keep coming back, you're allowed back tomorrow. It's just, come back when you're clean," Kelly said.
"They're making real connections. Sometimes it's not even the activities here, sometimes they go down to the back corner and chat. Especially after there's been some tragedies, with people dying and whatnot, sometimes people just need to express that, and that's so healing for them."
It's common to walk in on any given night and see people playing cards, watching sports on television or learning how to play guitar. There are books and games.
The centre has also been given tickets to attend local sports games and go bowling.
"We don't care what people are doing as long as they're straight, " Kelly said.
The centre is open five nights a week and would open seven nights if there were more volunteers, Kelly said. She'd also like to offer daytime programming for children and parents.
'Keep chasing that high'
Cory Levy is a volunteer at the centre and helps teach guitar to clients who want to learn.
A guitar player for over 20 years, Levy has also struggled with addiction and counts himself lucky to be alive after surviving a motorcycle crash and an altercation with police.
"I believe that those should be eye-openers … for somebody, but yet, you kind of turn a blind eye to that, and you keep chasing that high," he said.
Levy said his volunteer work has helped him in his sobriety, and allowed him to connect with the clients at SAFE.
"I've been in their shoes … what I've learned in recovery is that giving back to the community is one of the best things you can do," he said. "I don't regret the past, I just look to the future. I know what I can achieve."
'This helps with the loneliness'
Kelly said activities available at SAFE have helped to minimize the risk of relapse while promoting harm reduction.
"One of the worst things for someone trying to get well is to isolate," she said. "You tend to hang out with the people that are not healthy and you can't get away from it — or you close off entirely and you're bored or depressed or lonely.
"This helps with the loneliness. This helps with developing connections, so that you can go out and learn some things and … realize people are wanting to help you out."
Kelly said she hopes the success of SAFE will inspire others on P.E.I. to open similar spaces.
"I'm so glad to have people like Sister Laura here doing things like this," said Levy.