Posters that read “Don’t leave before the miracle” hang throughout the walls of Santa Barbara’s Casa Serena. For those who enter the nonprofit’s doors, the miracle is a recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.
It has been 50 years since Casa Serena opened its doors to offer a safe haven and support system for recovering women. In that time, it has seen about 10,000 women pass through its program.
Mildred Pinheiro founded what started out as a social network for sober women — or those who wanted to become sober — in August 1959.
A recovering alcoholic herself, Pinheiro worked to establish a safe house “because there was no place in Santa Barbara for women to get help,” said Jessie Stone, 25, development director for Casa Serena since 2007.
“What you look for are places like Casa, where women have the tools, the care, the safety and the staff to help them not relapse again,” said Craig Belknap, 61, executive director of Casa Serena. Belknap is also a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for nearly 32 years.
The social network that Pinheiro started has since expanded to three separate houses: the Main House on Bath Street, the Grad House on Castillo Street and the Oliver House on Oliver Street. The Oliver House is the sole institution in Santa Barbara County that provides a place for recovering women and their children to be reunited.
The Main House’s 90-day program assigns six residents per counselor. Group meetings, individual counseling sessions, daily chores and weekly meetings to conduct the 12-step program for recovery from alcoholism are part of the itinerary for Casa Serena. Upon completion, residents can opt to take the Grad House’s nine-month program for a full year of sobriety.
After a resident completes her stay at the Main House, a small graduation ceremony is held in her honor. She is then considered ready to be reintroduced to the community.
Former residents are invited back to offer advice and guidance to current residents. Sometimes they even become part of the Casa Serena staff.
“It really takes a lot of heart to work at a nonprofit. The counselors here, the things they hear in their counseling sessions, you can’t just put that behind you. You can’t just leave that at work,” Stone said.
Casa’s network of women helping women yields around 75 residents who have completed their programs each year at the Main House.
Lead program assistant and former resident, Michelle, 42, whose full name is withheld for privacy reasons, said that the Casa network helped her learn to care for others and allow them to care for her in return.
Prior to joining Casa, Michelle said, “I just lost hope. I was spiritually bankrupt, had no hopes or direction in life.”
In addition to giving a path to recovery, Casa Serena helps residents acquire new skills to help them get a job.
Michelle, who came through Casa’s program in May 2006, continued to live at the Grad House while working as a server at a fine dining restaurant. Today, she is close to becoming a certified drug and alcohol treatment counselor.
Resident adviser at the Oliver House and former Casa Serena resident in 2006, Denise, 49, who also declined to give her full name for privacy purposes, said that regardless of the physical changes the houses go through, its 12-step recovery program remains consistent.
“The 12-step program helped me to re-establish myself with my family and helped me get in touch with a part of myself that was nurturing,” said Denise, a Santa Barbara native.
Although the Main House program takes 90 days to complete, it is common for residents to restart their program due to relapse, Belknap said.
“We do so much for these women, but the bottom line is that it’s always in their motivation to getting to stay sober,” he said. “Any of us, including myself, after almost 32 years of being sober, could be drunk tomorrow.”
Before Casa, Belknap was executive director of a women’s institution in Dallas for 10 years. He said his experiences at that organization inspired him to become an advocate for recovering women.
Although Casa’s program is solely for recovering women, Belknap said his position is strictly managerial and that he has no interaction with the residents. His wife, Nancy Belknap, also works at the organization as a guidance counselor. The Belknaps are considered Casa’s first husband-and-wife team.
Nancy Belknap began with Casa Serena four years before her husband joined. She started out as a counselor at the Main House and the Grad House while Craig Belknap was in retirement and did volunteer work for Casa until he was hired as executive director in June 2007.
“When you walk out of here, you know what our work is. Because somewhere down the line, you’re going to run into a woman who has a problem with alcohol or drugs, and I want you to remember Casa Serena,” said Craig Belknap.
The 50th anniversary will be celebrated this fall at a private luncheon. The Mildred Pinheiro Award is one of the acknowledgments to be granted to someone who has been involved with Casa Serena for an extended period of time. This will be the first time any type of award will be presented.
“Being able to look in the mirror and feel OK about yourself — not necessarily proud of yourself, but comfortable — is a miracle because the disease takes you to a place where you’re not comfortable with your own reflection,” Denise said. When asked about how Casa Serena has changed her life, she said, “the miracles are in the mirrors.”
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