PORTLAND – A few months ago, it looked like budget cuts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage might close Serenity House and nine other residential programs for alcohol and drug abuse treatment.

Not only did Serenity House survive, on Monday it also got a personal visit and vote of confidence from LePage.

“It’s a model for a lot of programs,” LePage said at the end of the 90-minute visit, noting that the house is run by private employees, not state employees.

The governor heard from staff and directors about the prescription drug addiction that is plaguing the state, and he listened to the stories of men turning their lives around at the house.

“Serenity House has saved lives — many, many lives,” Ryan Fitzherbert, a resident, told the governor. “A lot of miracles happen here.”

John Haskell said he is an example. Haskell, a recovering alcoholic, became Serenity House’s newest graduate shortly before LePage arrived Monday morning, walking down the front steps of the Mellen Street house as fellow residents clapped and hugged him.

“Three months ago, my life looked completely different than it does today and I only have this place to thank for it,” Haskell told LePage. “Today my daughter has a father.”

LePage asked how many of the 12 or so men in the room have children. Most of them raised their hands.

“It’s all about the kids,” said LePage, the son of an alcoholic father. “It’s important the kids have confidence in their parents.”

LePage credited the men for getting treatment. “Those that don’t are just creating another generation behind them,” he said.

Several men told LePage that it’s important to support residential treatment centers such as Serenity House because short-term or outpatient rehab programs don’t create the same kind of support network and don’t keep addicts away from bad influences such as friends who are alcoholics or addicts.

About 150 men enter Serenity House to get sober each year and transition back into the community over three months. Serenity House gets about $376,000 each year from the state, about half of its annual revenue. The rest comes from a combination of MaineCare, the city of Portland and private funding.

LePage’s initial budget proposed to cut $4.4 million from substance abuse programs, and administration officials chose to eliminate state funding for 10 residential centers because they account for the most expensive kind of treatment and counseling.

Loss of those funds would have forced the 44-year-old Serenity House to close, said Executive Director Robert Dawber.

After appeals from Serenity House and others, LePage restored about half of the targeted funding. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee restored the rest before the budget was adopted.

During the budget discussion, Dawber invited LePage to visit the house. On Monday, he personally thanked LePage for helping restore the funds.

“What we do here,” he said, “the state is getting its money’s worth.”

During a tour of the house, Dawber pointed out the used furniture bought on Craigslist and the donated food used to cook meals for about $3.90 a day per resident.

Residents also thanked LePage for coming and supporting them.

“I’m happy everything worked out during the budget,” said Frank Lopes, a Serenity House graduate. “There are a lot of success stories. I’m one of them.”

LePage made no promises about future state budgets. But, he said, his administration is reviewing agencies and programs this summer, and Serenity House stands up well.

“We’re looking at every program and evaluating what are we doing. Is it helping?” LePage told Serenity House’s staff and directors. “Show me the value of your product. You can show it. Many of them can’t.”

LePage also said his administration has been hearing a lot about prescription painkiller abuse, and is talking with hospitals and other groups about controlling access to the drugs.

Dawber said the governor’s visit is a good sign for Serenity House’s work, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be more uncertainty with the next budget.

“To have the governor come for a visit is a huge statement,” Dawber said. At the same time, he said, “he’s the governor, but he’s only one person in the mix.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]


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