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Nothing fancy, just a way to mend lives

July 25, 1997

It's the middle of summer, the days are long and hot and many of the people most businesses count on as regular clients are somewhere else, enjoying a vacation. For most workers, it's a break in the action and a welcome chance to catch one's breath.

Not for Bonnie Beachley. The head of the Washington County Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency knows that if her clients are not calling her, they're out there partying, kidding themselves that one beer or one hit on the crack pipe won't lead to disaster.

The council may be United Way's smallest agency, with Beachley the only paid staffer for 30 hours a week. She offsets costs by answering the phone and providing other services for John Bear, owner of the Professional Arts Building on Hagerstown's Public Square, where the council's officies are located.

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The agency's title speaks only of drug and alcohol, but Beachley says it provides information on programs dealing with a wide range of addictive behaviors, including everything from overeating to gambling. The council also assists the Adult Community Service Program by providing work to those sentenced to do community service by the courts.

"For the past 30 years, we've been an information center. If people call in and want information on where they can attend an AA meeting in the islands, we have that information. When the Hagerstown Housing Authortiy applies for a grant, we supply statistics so they can get it," she said.

Beachley is not a therapist, but says that if you call, "I would give you information on the disease of alcoholism and refer you to programs run by the health department or the hospital."

Sadly, there is a lot of repeat business, in part because people get into social situations where they feel pressure to drink, or because they kid themselves about their ability to "handle it."

"Many people will relapse if they drink this non-alcoholic beer. There's still a small percentage of alcohol in it, and that gives them the taste for the real thing, and 'just one beer' becomes 24," she said.

Holidays and other events like school graduations also bring more calls because of activities like parties that involve alcohol, she said.

The council's mission is important, Beachley said, because "It takes a lot to pick up that phone." And if nobody's there when they call, "they may never pick up that phone again."

For that reason, Beachley has a beeper and is on call 24 hours a day. The major problem she faces is alcohol, which affects a majority of those she sees through the community service program. People do things they wouldn't ordinarily do when they're drinking, including fighting, stealing or even writing bad checks, she says.

Sometimes the behavior is learned - the children of alcoholics have a greater chance of becoming alcoholics themselves - but Beachley is not allowing anyone to use that as an excuse.

"You're the one that controls the elbow. You're the one that bends that elbow." she said.

Asked how many people succeed in the battle of the bottle, she says it's not something that can easily be measured. "Statsistics can be whatever you want them to be. It's a day-by-day battle."

Sometimes alcoholics shed one addictive behavior for another, she said, adding that some become chain smokers and drink 24 cups of coffee a day. But alcohol is worse, she says, because it's a "gateway" to other drugs, like crack cocaine.

Tales of crack's irrestible lure are not overblown, she said. "One time and you're hooked. Then they'll sell their soul for a piece of crack."

Asked if there's any cure, she says it's possible, but adds that "It's a longer road than the alcoholic road."

The council helps fight the battle in a variety of ways, putting its community- service clients to work stuffing envelopes, distributing literature and assembling information packets.

"They have helped me out a lot. When they're introduced to people, I just call them my volunteers. It helps their self-esteem," she said.

Beachley's system seems to help. Since 1992, she says she's had only two "repeats." Most have some addiction problem, although she did have two with no drug or alcohol history. "It was just anger," she said.

Beachley teaches them how to network and deal with the public, then sends them out on the council's behalf. "I tell them when they go out, they are representatives of the council and the United Way."

The United Way partially funds the council's budget, Beachley said, and some capital equipment has been paid for by the local Rotary Foundation. Ironically, she said, it's tough to hold fund-raising events in addition to the annual spring membership/donation drive because "people don't want to go where they can't drink."

Soon you'll be asked to help Beachley's agency when the annual United Way drive gears up. It won't pay for anything fancy, just a person on the phone to listen and try to help people put their lives back together. If you'd like to help, or need help yourself, call (301) 790-2171.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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