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The New Guy

Faced with a budget mess, Scott Addison is charged with reviving the city's largest nonprofit drug-treatment center.

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"Oh," she says with a tight smile. "I got a letter from you Friday." Addison winces ever so slightly. It wasn't a good letter.

Addison, 34, came from Wyoming a month ago to take on a tough job in the toughest of times. His first task as the new director of Rubicon Inc., the city's largest nonprofit drug treatment center, was to lay off 20 employees before he had the chance to meet them. And more drastic action will be needed to get Rubicon back on track. Its budget last fiscal year was $4.2 million; this year, it must make do with $2 million. The agency lost $1.7 million from state cuts that hit the Department of Corrections, which used to provide most of the agency's clients.

The nonprofit has been without an executive director for two years, since former director Evangle Watley died after a 29-year tenure. Rubicon's board of directors started a nationwide search for a leader this year, hoping to find someone with experience in social service and business. Addison, who was serving as executive director of the Wyoming Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery Centers, and who has twin master's degrees in counseling psychology and public administration, fit the bill perfectly.

"He's energetic, he's young," says Clarence Jackson, chairman of the board. The board sought someone who would aggressively promote the organization not just to potential clients, Jackson says, but also to donors, other nonprofits and the General Assembly. They want to make Rubicon secure enough never again to be so injured by the loss of a single funding source.

Addison flew here twice for interviews before deciding to make the leap from one of the few states with a sizable budget surplus to one crippled by cuts. You have to ask: What was he thinking?

"I think it was the challenge," he says. "Also the diversity." Addison believes that strong, decisive leadership can help Rubicon fulfill its much-needed mission. Despite the financial problems, he says, "the potential is still there to provide amazing service to the city of Richmond."

Addison advocates a "strength-based model" of drug-addiction treatment, which teaches clients to focus on their assets — family, friends, spirituality, support groups — instead of obstacles. He's taking the same approach to reviving Rubicon. Knowing it was beset by problems, he asked himself, What are its assets?

The big one is the agency's 12-acre campus on Front Street, at the end of Brookland Park Boulevard. On the tree-lined grounds stands a stately Victorian house where women and children in the program live, a large brick building that Rubicon leases to a private school, and the recently built $4 million men's treatment center. It's an unexpected oasis in a rough neighborhood; young men loiter in the surrounding streets but seldom dare to go inside the graffiti-scrawled brick walls.

The place amazed Addison when he first saw it, but he wondered why it wasn't being fully used. The halls on the second and third floors of the men's center are silent, with only 40 out of 150 beds occupied. Ninety beds are available for women, but only about 30 live in the center now, along with a few infants and toddlers. (On one visit, Addison smiles to see six little ones messily eating pudding in the nursery.) A few smaller buildings on campus are vacant.

Finding more money and more people to fill the facilities is paramount. Rubicon currently has a contract with the city for $1.4 million — a combination of grants and treatment fees. Addison plans to seek clients from Richmond's homeless and the agencies that serve them, and institute a sliding fee scale to help defray costs.

He also plans to solicit Rubicon's former mainstay, the Department of Corrections, for referrals and possible grants. "Getting those individuals out of the prisons and into our facility is going to save them money," he points out. Hospitals may also be interested in partnering with Rubicon, as the nonprofit can treat addicts much cheaper. Its typical cost per patient is $90 to $110, while a private hospital may charge $200 to $350.

Addison's responsibility extends beyond just keeping the nonprofit afloat, says Frank "Pepper" Laughon Jr., a board member since 1969. Drug-treatment programs are needed "to maintain some sanity in our community," he says, especially at a time when crime rates are climbing as government aid to social services is minimal.

In order to fill its beds and bank account, Rubicon must begin to make its name known, Addison says. Though well-respected by fellow nonprofits, Rubicon keeps a low profile and records no statistics on its success rates, a risky oversight in an age where funding is often based on performance. Addison's Wyoming agency helped 62 to 68 percent of its clients overcome their addictions. "And I feel assured that we can too," Addison says.

Rubicon takes a "bio-psycho-social approach" to treating drug addiction, Addison explains — that is, addressing not only physical dependence but also mental illness and reintegration into society. Simply put, "we teach people how to lead better lives," he says. Clients live on the Front Street campus with 24-hour supervision and help from addiction specialists, educators and counselors. When clients first arrive, they undergo detox, if necessary, spend 30 days in treatment and then transition into employment and an independent life.

The idea is to inundate each client with coping skills, Addison says, teaching them ways that don't involve drugs to deal with stress, anger and "life in general." He believes firmly in holding clients accountable for their own rehabilitation. "It's not just come live with us and hang out and do your thing," he says.

By June 1, Addison plans to move the organization's administrative headquarters from a dingy office in Scott's Addition to a now-vacant building in Rubicon's Front Street complex. He thinks that consolidating operations will save money and improve the agency's image. "The carpets are filthy — just not my style," he says. "I like it clean."

Board members hope the new director's drive will be Rubicon's salvation. They know he's not afraid to make a stir. Addison's an ACLU member, an unabashed liberal and a self-proclaimed fan of "anarchist" musicians such as Ani diFranco and Utah Phillips. And the board considers him tough — Addison played on the defensive line at the University of Wyoming, Laughon points out. "If you ever saw a place that needed a linebacker, this is it." s

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