By Barry Carter | For NJ Advance Media
Up until about five years ago, Ed Keegan didn’t talk much about how Integrity House straightened out his life.
Keegan, 69, of Toms River, didn’t want anybody to know he was a recovering addict when the courts sent him to Integrity at 21-years old. There was stigma, he said, in the 1970s toward people like him.
“You never said anything. You wouldn’t get job if you did,” Keegan said.
Keegan is not quiet anymore. Integrity, the largest drug treatment program in the state, celebrated 50 years of rebuilding lives on Thursday, and Keegan is proud to say he’s one of them.
He shares his past now at support group meetings, explaining how Integrity became his family, how this program was the first thing he ever completed after taking his first shot of heroin at age 14.
Ed Keegan, who stayed at the Integrity House in the 1970s, attends the the 50th commemoration ceremony.
‘They didn’t want nothing from me but to be better’
“They didn’t want nothing from me but to be better,” said Keegan, who still has his certificate after 47 years of sobriety.
The retired tugboat operator was with his family to be a part of ceremonies marking Integrity’s half-century milestone.
Long time Integrity supporters were there, too, praising the organization for an improbable journey that started in a brownstone-style home, which is among 14 buildings Integrity operates from in Newark’s Lincoln Park.
“Integrity understands the importance of assisting those individuals who desire to put their lives back together, providing the tools of sobriety and professional treatment,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who runs the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a non-profit that helps former prisoners after they have been released from prison.
Integrity understood Carla Henry, 54, of Irvington. She had been to 22 detox facilities and none of them worked until she came to Integrity in 2009. She had spent 22 years battling her addiction.
“If it wasn’t for Integrity, I know I would be dead,” said Henry, who’s been drug free for 10 years. “Integrity taught me how to love myself.”
Founder Dave Kerr shakes the CEO Robert Budsock hand during the 50th commemoration ceremony at Integrity House.
‘I saw the talent of the people in the street’
The organization may not have grown to what is now had founder Dave Kerr given up when he and his cousin, Richard Grossklaus, set out to help four parolees struggling with addiction in 1968.
Kerr, a parole officer, invited the men to live in his brownstone, so they could get their lives together.
The men, and neighborhood addicts, did just the opposite. They stole from Kerr and Grossklaus, taking clothes, a tape recorder and a television.
Kerr was about ready to kick them out until he received a $1,000 check in the mail from a foundation that heard about his work. He continued to stand by them, understanding that the men – and others he has met since then – have something to offer once you get past their addiction.
“I saw the talent of the people in the street,” said Kerr, who led Integrity for 43 years, said. “Let’s work with them to find their strength. Look at what they can do.”
‘Our goal is to reach as many people as possible’
Kerr forged ahead, and Integrity grew to become a leader in the field of addiction treatment, serving 3,000 people annually across the state. Beyond Newark, Integrity has facilities in Kearny, Jersey City, Morris Plains, Toms River, Paramus and Secaucus.
“Our goal is to reach as many people as possible,” said Robert J. Budsock, who has been chief executive officer and president of Integrity since 2012.
A pioneer in the field, Kerr used a mode of treatment known as therapeutic communities that relied on former addicts to help clients. The method, which is the basis for many programs today, emerged in the 1970s, a time when other health professionals had given up on addicts.
Charlette Golden talks of her experience at Integrity House in Newark on Aug. 23, 2018.
‘The drug dreams are gone’
Integrity never did. Instead, it continued to grow with each success story, like that of Charlette Golden, 41, of Newark.
She said Integrity helped her face the guilt of putting her daughter up for adoption because of her addiction, and for using drugs while pregnant with a son.
The cloud lifted in 2015 when Golden met her daughter, now 22, at Integrity, and when she began to show others in the program that she was serious about recovery after a 23-year heroin addiction.
Her family wants her to come around now. She finished school, graduating from Essex County College. Paying bills like normal people is exciting. And, she just celebrated five years of being clean.
“The drug dreams are gone,” Golden said. “I don’t want to get high.”
A ‘passion to help people’
The organization’s impact is real. In 2015, the White House took notice when President Barack Obama came to Newark and spent time with Budsock and the residents. He praised Integrity’s program, using it as an example to call on Congress to pass a bill that reduces mandatory sentencing for drug offenses.
Of all the milestones in its history – national accreditation and program expansion – Budsock said Obama’s recognition of Integrity as a gold standard in addiction treatment was a special moment.
There are outpatient and long term residential programs, detox facilities and halfway houses, supportive housing for men who are homeless and in recovery.
Clients can earn their General Equivalency Diploma and work towards a college degree through a partnership Integrity has with Essex County College.
“At the same time, we have maintained the heart and soul of Integrity House and that is the passion to help people.”
‘We have gotten stronger’
What Integrity does is not easy work. In 1968, heroin was the problem. Crack cocaine took over in the 1980s, only for heroin to return in the early 2000s.
The opiod on the street now is Fentanyl, and Budsock said its lethal for recovery addicts who think they can try a small dose and return to treatment.
“Now people relapse and die,” Budsock said. “That’s the game changer.”
Integrity is not deterred. It remains vigilant and a voice in the debate on how best to help addicts, many of whom are incarcerated because of drug use.
“It’s tough to sustain yourself for 50 years,” Budsock said. “Not only have we sustained ourselves, we have gotten stronger.”
But there’s still folk out there struggling. Integrity is at the crossroads waiting for them.
All they have to do is walk through the door.
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