September 18, 2010
For a community program whose goal is to one day close its doors,
there continues to be an enormous task ahead for the Sunrise House.
The Salinas-based youth and family counseling center is celebrating
its 40th anniversary next week.
Program leaders say, philosophically, they look forward to the day
when its services are no longer needed, when the battle against drug
and alcohol abuse is finally won.
Well, social trends seem to be setting the stage for keeping the
Sunrise House in business:
> The rate of illegal drug use rose last year to the highest level
in nearly a decade, according to a report released Thursday by the
Office of National Drug Control Policy.
> California voters on Nov. 2 will decide a ballot measure calling
for the legalization of marijuana.
> Drugs and alcohol remain at the root of most crimes and domestic violence.
The Sunrise House opened in 1970.
Longtime Salinas educator, coach and civic leader Elgie Bellizio
blazed the trail for this community's first efforts in dealing with
kids on dope and booze. Back then, the drug culture was in its
hey-day; "flower power" was in vogue and hippie guru Timothy Leary
urged America to "turn on, tune in and drop out."
At first, like a caring parent, Salinas was in denial about drug use
in the community.
"I remember people saying, 'there's no problem here' when kids were
out at the Salinas River picking jimson weed and making tea out of
it," recalled Irwin Koppel, chief psychologist at Sunrise House since
Bellizio said kids were showing up stoned in class. Simply locking
them up wasn't the answer. Salinas needed a counterpunch to the
counterculture which was attracting more and more young people to its
dance with drugs such as LSD, mescaline, speed, heroin and, of
course, marijuana and booze.
Salinas' response to the problem was a seven-agency Joint Powers
Agreement (now 10 agencies) to provide funding, staffing, office
furniture and other resources to a fledgling little program that
itself was an experiment.
They named it the Sunrise House.
That JPA has remained committed to its original purpose throughout
the years, allowing for the program's impressive stability and
endurance, even through hard economic times.
Sunrise House began with an annual budget of about $42,000 and has
grown into a $500,000 service center with 11 drug and alcohol abuse
counselors, including one at each high school in the city, and
counseling services that deal also with violence prevention, sexual
abuse and runaways.
Bellizio is proud of how the program found its focus from the needs
and wants of young people and families.
He held "hundreds of coffee klatches" he said, instead of relying on
ivory-tower studies and models.
"Any program has to be based on identifying people's needs, not
somebody else's ideas," he said.
Along the way, the Sunrise House was among the first to recognize
that counseling must extend beyond the addicted individual to
families, friends and associates who may recognize the problem and
urge the addicted person, often in denial, to seek help.
The result is a youth and family counseling service that has served
as a model for other communities across the nation.
Over the years, the Sunrise House clientele is largely unchanged. It
takes walk-ins, referrals from the courts and the schools.
The Sunrise House also delivers a "stay drug-free" message each year
to student-athletes and those who want to participate in campus clubs
and activities, and delivers turkey dinners to needy families during
the holiday season.
From its inception, Bellizio and others insisted that the Sunrise
House services should be free to all who seek its help. That still is the case.
There is plenty to celebrate in honor of the Sunrise House because
the program also symbolizes what community commitment is all about.
For the past 40 years, Salinas has not lost sight of the need to
simply care for its youth, the families they come from and for
providing them with the help they need to overcome the difficulties
associated with drug and alcohol abuse. And Salinas should be
grateful that the welcome mat is still out and the doors at the
Sunrise House remain open.