By Emily Drooby
Ms. Winnie Houk has always loved teaching, but her most difficult student was her son Joe.
Joe died from a drug overdose when he was only 24-years-old. Three years later, Winnie wishes he could have gone to a school like the one she teaches in now.
The diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania just opened Kolbe Academy, the nation’s first Catholic recovery high school working to help students stay sober.
Named after St. Maximilian Kolbe – the patron saint of people struggling with addiction – the academy costs 15,000 dollars a year and is open to students who are at least 30 days sober. The school also hosts social circles where students can make new friends in sobriety. Kolbe provides them with daily counseling and the support they need to stay clean.
The school asked Currents News not to show the faces of their students, but all the staff and teachers who walk the halls are like Winnie, choosing to teach here because of their own brushes with addiction.
Winnie is one such teacher at the new school. “You can’t put that into words. I think about him every day. it’s incredibly painful,” she said. “I am doing this as a way of honoring my Joe.”
“We all want to be here, we all have personal stories and it shows,” Winnie said.
The school community has people like Board Member Linda Johnson, whose son struggled with addiction for years. He underwent treatment 19 times before becoming sober.
“There was a moment in time where when I went to bed at night my thought was, ‘He was going to die, and I was going to wake up and get that news,’” Linda said. “When I woke up in the morning, my first thought was, ‘Okay that didn’t happen, but it’s going to happen sometime today.’”
in 2017, Pennsylvania had the third highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country.
Across the nation, over 70,000 people died that year of an overdose, an epidemic from which even children are not exempt.
That same year, four percent of high school students suffered from substance use. Among young adults that number jumps to almost 15 percent, proving that addiction isn’t just a phase.
The experience of Kolbe’s teachers – one of creating an atmosphere of compassion, respect and deep understanding – is one they hope helps kids stay on the road to recovery.
“We’re connecting with them so that we can build that level of trust, so that they can come to us when they need support, and so that they know that we’re there for them when they need it,” said the school’s principal, John Petruzzelli.
The ongoing road to recovery is easy to fall off of, which is something Principal Petruzzelli knows all too well: in the past year and a half, he’s lost three former students to overdoses.
It’s a crisis his school is trying to change.
Kolbe is the brainchild of Dr. Brooke Tesche, who lost her godson to addiction. She’s spent the past two years trying to open the school, and says research shows that recovery high schools can keep kids from relapsing.
“Students, when they go back into the same environment, have less than a 20 percent chance of staying clean and sober but when they go into a recovery high school model. Those rates of success go to 8 percent,” Brooke, who is the diocesan Chancellor for Catholic Education, explained.
For her, Kolbe takes that model a step further by adding faith, a key component in many people’s recovery journey.
“Faith is a critical element, addicts in long term recovery they attribute their success to their faith,” Brooke added.
Faith, recovery and well-being are written into the curriculum, but also the fabric of the school.
“I think in life we all are drawn to people who have had the same experiences that we had and we gain from them the knowledge and the strength we need to help ourselves,” said Linda.
“I understand that these children are suffering. This is not something they chose to do. My son didn’t choose it, they didn’t choose it,” Winnie added. “It happened to them. They’re smart, they’re great kids, they’re funny kids, and they need people who understand them, who respect them and who want to be with them, and I do.”
This recovery success and transformation is fueled by love, support and respect.
With the opioid crisis raging in America, the Allentown Diocese hopes Kolbe can be a model for other faith communities.
The school has three students enrolled right now, but can take up to 100. It has rolling admission, which means students can join at any time.