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Last updated: Sun. Aug. 31, 2014 - 04:50 pm EDT

Local halfway house breaks cycle

Gives work skills so recovered men can regain lives

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Nestled in the middle of the West Central neighborhood, The Thirteen Step House may be easily confused as just another house on a residential block of West Washington Boulevard. That’s on purpose.

According to Executive Director Dennis Combs, the discreet nature has worked well in a neighborhood that, at least for many years, didn’t look very kindly on a halfway house for people with addictions.

But now that Combs is in charge, he wants to change that and spread the word that The Thirteen Step House is available to help alcoholics and drug addicts with expanded programming that began this spring. Heavy emphasis is being placed on life skills ranging from parenting to work ethic.

“Our purpose is to encourage a change in lifestyle that will allow these men to either maintain or regrasp their responsibilities as spouses, parents, employees and debtors in our community,” Combs said.

In 1968, four men started The Thirteen Step House as an extra step to the common 12-step program, the guiding principles used worldwide by self-help, substance abuse and recovery organizations. The house was donated to them to begin a supportive, clean and safe place for men to stay while struggling to recover from alcoholism and substance abuse.

The house is a part of the self-supporting nonprofit organization that can house up to 42 men at a time in a network of four houses in downtown Fort Wayne. Most of their funding comes from private donations.

The mission of The Thirteen Step House is “to provide a safe and secure residential living environment to allow alcoholics and addicts an opportunity to recover physically, mentally, and spiritually until sufficient sobriety is achieved.”

Combs said that when most residents arrive, they are in a downward spiral. They have lost their families, their jobs, their health, some have lost everything. But many of the men served by the house were at one point assets to the community. They just need help getting back on track.

Ray Murray Jr. said he was an employee benefits administrator for major insurance companies and a consulting firm for more than 20 years before his alcoholism ended his career, and almost ended his life. Murray was homeless for a time and moved in and out of halfway houses until 2005, when he moved into the Thirteen Step House.

“The Thirteen Step House and its then-director did everything humanly possible to help me stay sober,” Murray said. “I don’t believe I would be alive today without the opportunity I received there.”

Murray has been sober since the fall of 2006 and is now a member of the Thirteen Step House board.

“The Thirteen Step House is a safe place to go and get these men out of their drinking environment for a short spell,” Combs said. “(They are able) to get a strong foundation of recovery under their belt to return home and continue to work their program and continue to change their lives.”

When Combs became the executive director in 2008, he felt that the residents needed help improving their life skills. He came up with the concept for the new “Learning Center,” which opened May 29. They have parenting classes conducted by Life Line and plan to conduct construction, computer, work ethics, résumé and GED classes once they find volunteers.

“We can help them get clean and sober, but if they leave and have no skills, they get disappointed in the work force and can go back to their old ways,” Combs said.

The Thirteen Step House has saved hundreds of lives over the past few decades by helping men regain their families and control of their own lives. Murray said that the organization has given thousands of men, from all walks of life, a second chance.

Michael Zoretich said he’d be in prison or dead if it weren’t for the Thirteen Step House, where he admits the director didn’t find him easy to get along with and at one point almost kicked him out.

“I had a horrible and destructive attitude,” Zoretich said in a written statement. “My drinking had infected every area of my life. Some were obvious, but the decline in other areas were so subtle that I still had the illusion of control while my life was falling apart.

“Living at the Step House was a reality check. It taught me responsibility, respect, humility, gratitude and integrity,” he said. “I learned about the disease of alcoholism and was given the solution to my problems.”

It’s been five years since he was at the facility, but he still benefits. “My relationships, friendships, financial status, health, fitness, work, faith life and overall happiness continue to increase as a result of practicing what I was taught at the Step House,” Zoretich said.

Combs said that if The Thirteen Step House can save one life, then it has fulfilled its mission. “People need to understand the alcoholics and addicts are not bad people getting good,” Combs said, “but sick people getting well.”

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