El Rancho de la Vida ‘steers’ the way to wellness
In the ranch-like atmosphere of Sunrise Ranch in Riverside, Calif., Jamie Lebish was able to drop his façade and focus on his early recovery from opioid addiction in the late 1990s.
Twenty-two years into long-term recovery and 11 years into a career in addiction treatment, Jamie is establishing Somerset County’s first recovery house, taking inspiration from that Californian ranch. El Rancho de la Vida, or “the ranch of life,” is the first co-ed recovery house in the decidedly un-ranch-like state of Maine.
It’s an unlikely love story. Jamie finds it slightly surreal to be living his life’s ambition now, at 61, with the woman he intended to marry in his twenties. He and Katherine Andersson-Caldwell went their separate ways more than 30 years ago. In the years in between, they each married, raised children and had an experience with addiction: he got hooked on opioids after a serious car crash; she was an ally for a family member with substance use disorder.
Jamie and Katherine reconnected five years ago, first on Facebook. Then on the phone. Then she flew from California for a visit. “When we saw each other again after 34 years,” Jamie says, “our romance took off.”
Together, they talked about starting a nonprofit recovery house and a treatment center dedicated to helping people with substance use disorder.
It was a dream. Or, it was a dream, until she came into an inheritance from her uncle Jon Andersson.
With that seed money, they leased a house on the Good-Will Hinckley campus in Hinckley, Maine, which they are calling Andersson Ranch.
By early March, they were moving in, setting up the house with ranch flair, applying for grants, and signing on an operations director, an interim medical director and an interim clinical supervisor. Then, just as they were ready to welcome residents called “ranchers,” the pandemic hit the pause button.
Several of the 11 spots remained unfilled for months on end.
“We’d probably have a waiting list right now if it weren’t for the pandemic,” says Benjamin Smith, operations director.
However, one thing the El Rancho team has in spades is radical hope.
“Intense amounts of hope, way more than people would normally associate with recovery,” Jamie says. “We want to provide radical hope, astonishment about regular life, about themselves, about the meaning of existence. When people start to wake up again, they realize they have all these gifts—their children and their talents and their partner.”
It all starts with a safe place to live, a sense of purpose and a community.
“We want to be sure that people are treated holistically—in other words, the whole person,” Jamie says. “Nutrition, good health, doctors, social workers, a case manager—all the wraparound services, in a hub, spoke, and wheel, where this is a central location and we send them out to different spokes.”
Though not an actual ranch, the house is a rural area, “away from triggers for most people,” Katherine says, with walking trails and plenty of land to someday introduce equine therapy.
The El Rancho team wants it to be a place where nonviolent people in recovery—regardless of gender or sexual orientation—can find a safe home for up to a year while they take the next steps toward wellness. Officially the fee starts at $1,000 a month, but ranchers who qualify for financial assistance may be able to move in for $600 a month with a $500 deposit.
“We call ourselves life ranchers,” Jamie says, launching into the pun. “We want to help ‘steer’ people’s lives.”
Jamie is a case manager (MHRT- 1) and certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC) and certified residential medication aide (CRMA) who refers ranchers to other professionals such as physicians and social workers and connects them with resources such as food stamps and Section 8 housing.
“We are the last stop before independent living, like getting an apartment or a house with someone,” Jamie says. “They get out of treatment and come to a place like this to get it together, get a job or go back to school and find a permanent place to live. And we help with all that kind of stuff.”
Sunday dinners and house meetings help forge community, while work requirements and curfews establish structure.
The choice to welcome couples is intended to fill a niche not available anywhere else in Maine.
“There are a lot of couples who are using together; their lives are miserable but they can’t seem to get past using every day,” Jamie says. “They fight and bicker, or they get along and just do drugs together. But as they have children and things start to deteriorate, they’ve got to do something. If they really want to recover together, they will work their way through. If we present them with radical hope, they will try to get their lives back.”
Despite being a new couple this time around, Jamie and Katherine are finding themselves modeling what a healthy relationship looks like.
“We respect each other and love each other and put up with each other’s idiosyncrasies and differences,” he says. “And we work it all out through humor and dialogue.”
El Rancho de la Vida is a Maine Association of Recovery Residences certified Level III residential recovery house, with plans to add a full treatment center in 2021. For more information: elranchodelavida.org/