Nugen's treatment ranch gives addicts a second chance

Special to the Daily NewsMarch 9, 2013 

Forest Bond has been that bundle of bones passed out at the picnic table, people walking by, staring, shaking their heads. He's been that unconscious drunk carted off to the emergency room, over and over, three times in one week, best he can remember. He's scored a blood alcohol level of 0.5 more times than makes any kind of sense. That's more than six times the legal limit for driving.

"That's legally dead," is how he puts it.

Bond has been on this planet just 26 years. That's like 126 in chronic alcoholic years.

"My dad died when I was 7 of alcoholism," he said. "I figured the prime of my life was gone, and I was going to end up just like him. I was hopeless."

Slight, red-haired and so soft-spoken you have to lean forward to catch his words, Bond is making his second run at sobriety. Some people are court-ordered to treatment. He wanted to go. After five months at Nugen's Ranch, a long-term residential facility for last-chance alcoholics and drug addicts, he was certain he would never drink again, "100 hundred percent sure." But he did. The delirium tremens were back so fast it was like they missed him. The anxiety, the shaking, the queasiness, the blurred vision. By day two of his relapse, he knew he'd screwed up big time. He begged those at Nugen's Ranch to take him back.

Clients who relapse have to wait six months before being readmitted. It's policy. But for Bond they made an exception. He was back in a month. Otherwise, clinical supervisor Cathy Bishop said, he would have died.

"In retrospect I can see a thousand things I did wrong," Bond said. "This is where I need to be."

He wants sobriety; he wants it badly. But when you've been guzzling alcohol like soda pop since you were a teenager, it takes time, sometimes a lot of time, to learn to live without it.

Leonard Nugen knew this when he first strode into Juneau in the late 1970s with his cowboy hat, bolo tie and unconventional ideas. He knew what hard-core alcoholics weren't getting from the typical 30-day treatment programs: They weren't getting time. He knew because that's what he needed back when he was sick enough to drink whatever he could get his hands on -- whiskey, wine, vanilla extract, Heet. Sick enough he couldn't remember if he had any family and the DTs had him seeing giant spiders boiling out of the commode. Nugen knew that anyone who drank as hard as he once did needs 30 days just for the fumes to clear enough to let him think.

The former hog farmer from West Virginia and decorated World War II veteran knew he couldn't save them all but he had a plan he believed could save some.



SOBRIETY RANCH

Nugen's plan was to start a ranch where people would stay for several months, a year, maybe two if they needed. Clients would raise pigs, cows, chickens, rabbits, geese. They'd grow potatoes, vegetables, even flowers. All the while, they'd be learning to live sober while caring for living things, themselves included.

At first, legislators nearly laughed him out of town. Nugen and his wife, Henrietta, whom he'd met in Alcoholics Anonymous, were directors of the Studio Club when he finally convinced his employers, known now as Alaska Addiction Rehabilitation Services Inc., that his plan could work. The nonprofit secured state funding and purchased an old orphanage in the Matanuska Valley, a cluster of farm buildings on 10 acres in the middle of nowhere along a narrow road winding through the hay fields. The board named the program Nugen's Ranch. Leonard became executive director and Henrietta, deputy director.

When Leonard Nugen retired at 70 in 1994 after nearly three decades in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, he went out as a man who helped create the first long-term facility in Alaska to receive national accreditation. At his retirement dinner, the Legislature gave him a commendation. He also received an Ambassador of Goodwill honor from the governor's office, the John Shaw Humanitarian Award and others.

Daughter Karen Nugen-Logan has run the place since, taking on the battles required to keep a nonprofit afloat -- the instability of state funding, the endless seeking of private and corporate donations, the constant pursuit of grants. The cutbacks here, the cutbacks there, the encroaching development, the plans for a liquor store across the road, the cranky neighbors complaining about those smelly pigs.

No sooner had the property been purchased in 1980 than that winding, narrow road out front -- the Palmer-Wasilla Highway -- got straighten and widened. Over the years, three of the original 10 acres went for right of way. Traffic increased, businesses sprang up, subdivisions moved in. An elementary school, a fire station, a bowling alley, a bar. The ranch no longer fit in and needed to move. At first, the squeeze came slowly, then abruptly through eminent domain with the most recent road improvement project, the widening of the intersection of the highway and the Seward Meridian Parkway.

The summer of 2011, the ranch moved to a new middle of nowhere, 30 miles from Wasilla, out Point MacKenzie Road. The old place, a cluster of weathered, red buildings with a mishmash of pallet-and-plywood fences, was bulldozed.



NOWHERE AGAIN

Nugen's Ranch now has a new, 16,000-square-foot, single-story facility on 116 acres about a mile before the Goose Creek Prison. It's about as different from the old place as it gets. The old ranch was cold, drafty and dark. The new one is warm, tidy and bright, with skylights throughout. Instead of going outside to fetch things from the cooler or freezer, clients find all amenities right there in the shiny new kitchen. There's a garage, staff quarters, an energy-efficient, 41-by-110-foot greenhouse and a sturdy barn. The old one was basically underground, and you had to really watch your head.

"The money we got from eminent domain, plus the Rasmuson Foundation and the Mat-Su Health Foundation, helped build this facility, and a state grant helped finish it," Nugen-Logan said. Other key contributors include The Foraker Group, the Denali Commission, Alaska Mental Health Trust and Rep. Don Young.

Between community volunteers, staff and a few clients, about half the property has been cleared, and there are plans to clear more. For now the ranch concentrates on growing vegetables, particularly potatoes, and hay. And pigs. It wouldn't be Nugen's Ranch without the pigs.

The new place has taken some getting used to. For one thing, it has 26 beds but funding to fill only 20. The old place served 30, down from 48 before funding cuts whittled away at the program. And they've had this little problem with the neighborhood bears, one digging up the potatoes, another trying to break into the barn.

Among the upsides, there's lots of room for agricultural expansion. There's hardly any traffic. And there are no nearby bars, no nearby much of anything except for the new prison, and that's not going to tempt anyone.

"It's peaceful," Logan-Nugen said. "I like that. I believe the ranch is where it needs to be."

Still, it was hard to see the old place go.

"The pig pens were made out of old pallets and railroad ties, and heck, the barn was made out of old railroad ties," said former client Mike Foy, 34. "The living room was the laundry room ... the whole thing didn't make any sense. It was the weirdest building I'd ever been in, all duct-taped together. I mean, it wasn't falling apart, it just had character.

"I'm sentimental, I miss it. Maybe because that's where it all happened for me."



RELAPSE HAPPENS

Foy did it all in his day -- alcohol, cocaine, Oxycontin, heroin. He got sick to death of it, and went through eight months of treatment at Nugen's Ranch. He left feeling renewed and made a classic mistake. Now that he was sober, everything would be different. He could start over and drink like normal people did. He drank the day he got out.

"I went out to play pool at a bar, and was going to have just one drink, just one. If I was going to have just one, I was going to have a strong one. From the day I left until six months later when I checked myself back in, I picked up right where I left off. As soon as I got drunk, I got drugs and I was off."

Foy went back for another 13 months. He graduated his second time the spring of 2009. Two years later he was back again -- this time not as a client but as an employee.

Foy returned with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and certification in chemical dependency counseling. Now five years clean and sober, he's working on his master's degree in mental health counseling. Cathy Bishop, who was once his counselor, is now his supervisor.

Relapsing is less important to long-term recovery than how people deal with it, Bishop said. "Do they reach out for help? Or do they go drink themselves to death?" Those are the ones she reads about in the newspaper, found dead in an apartment or frozen in a snowbank.

Everyone who walks through Nugen's door has a story, some harder to hear than others. One client was left in an apartment to care for his two younger brothers, and he was only 5 himself. Two weeks passed before they were discovered.

"I've had two or three clients who've seen one parent shoot and kill the other. Live with that one.

"People who come here have lost everything. They've lost their families, they've lost their homes, they've lost their jobs.

"We've had clients with cirrhosis so bad their skin is yellow, the whites of their eyes are yellow. Some, alcohol has already killed them but they're still alive. Their liver function is never going to return. We give them time to get their affairs in order. Or to reconnect with their families."

"I'm all about giving people second chances. It's not just to help that person; it's to help the whole community."

That's the legacy of Leonard Nugen, now 89 and 50 years sober -- proof that even the hardest of the hard-core can turn it around and give back.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service