Members of Alcoholics Anonymous gathered in the Lawrence Memorial Hospital auditorium on Saturday for a meeting unlike any the area had seen in at least 30 years.
It featured a panel of local professionals, including a judge, a church pastor, a representative from the Douglas County Jail, and a substance abuse counselor, who each led a discussion of how AA worked with their profession. One AA member, who drove all the way from Hays to speak to the group, said the goal was to discuss with professionals how 12-step programs could help those struggling with drugs and alcohol.
“We don’t tell them what to do,” he said. “We tell them what AA does. We don’t say we have the market cornered on recovery.”
The member from Hays said AA saved his life in 1998. He had been living on the street for years, sleeping behind Dumpsters, able to carry everything he owned in a paper sack. After going to meetings and following the program, he changed his life. He has a home, is married and cares for his stepchildren. He asked that his name not be used, to protect his traditional anonymity as a member of AA.
More than 30 members of Douglas County AA groups organized and attended the meeting, which was open to the public and also included members of Narcotics Anonymous.
Each of the guest speakers said they supported AA’s efforts, and some had suggestions for how they could work together more effectively.
Douglas County District Judge Sally Pokorny said the vast majority of assault, domestic violence and theft cases in her courtroom occurred because the offender was either under the influence or desperate for money to get their next fix of drugs or alcohol. But state budget cuts, she said, have left the court with no easily available drug and alcohol treatment programs to send the offenders to. Pokorny often orders defendants to complete treatment plans that include AA meetings, but she does not order people directly to the meetings.
“Some people are not ready,” she said.
For years, AA and NA members have gone into the Douglas County Jail to hold meetings with prisoners. Mike Caron, the jail’s volunteer coordinator, said those meetings could be very effective in reaching people at a time when they most need help, and he is desperately looking for more volunteers to hold more meetings.
“I’m getting to the point where if anybody says they’re willing to volunteer to come in and do a meeting, I try to schedule them that week,” he said.
One difficulty, Caron said, was getting permission to let them into the jail. Many AA and NA members who are willing and able to volunteer are still on probation or parole from their own past run-ins with the law. He said jail administrators feared that such a volunteer could use the opportunity to smuggle in contraband, or blackmail a prisoner with information learned in a meeting. But, Caron said, he would work with any well-intentioned group member who stepped forward.
Wally Mechler, a Lawrence counselor licensed to treat drug and alcohol addiction, said he has been sending clients to AA meetings for years. Some professionals in his field disagree with the 12-step philosophy, Mechler said, but he argued that it had a sound scientific basis as a form of therapy. And, he said, statistics confirmed its success rates. He also echoed a point made by Pokorny: AA is free.
“It’s a very elaborate cognitive-behavior therapy, used in the community, that my clients don’t have to pay $110 an hour for,” he said.
The Rev. Tom Brady, pastor at First United Methodist Church, said his church was one of those that offered meeting space to an AA group. He said he admired their efforts and viewed AA as a ministry not unlike his own.
“It’s about people helping other people,” he said. “Our doors are always open.”
For more information about Alcoholics Anonymous in Douglas County, visit aa-ksdist23.org.