President and CEO of Liberation Programs, Alan Mathis, ‘Spirit of Hope’ Honoree Icy Frantz and presenter and honorary event chair Bob Bantle. (contributed photo) By Michelle Moskowitz Sentinel Correspondent “We need to restore and rekindle the human spirit, and support all Connecticut communities facing the crisis of drug and alcohol addiction,” said Alan Mathis, president and CEO of Liberation Programs. Liberation Programs, one of Fairfield County’s leading health organizations, specializes in the “integrated addiction treatment” of substance abuse and addiction, including alcohol, opiates, depressants and stimulants. Formed in 1971, Liberation’s mission is to “empower people and their families to be free of the disease of addiction by providing targeted solutions that restore lives and strengthen our community.” Every day, Liberation’s staff of 125 professionals touches the lives of 1,000 individuals suffering from a substance abuse disorder, with the end goal of providing lifelong recovery and self-sufficiency. Many of the people served by their programs are either unemployed or among the working poor. Many either earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid or too little to afford insurance or pay for the necessary treatment they need to get their lives back on track. The agency has locations in Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport. For more than 25 years, Liberation has had an office at the Greenwich YMCA, spearheaded by Maggie Young, Liberation’s director of Family and Youth Services. Due to increased substance abuse among teens, Liberation opened an office at Greenwich High School last year. Liberation offers a multitude of services for youth, adults and families, including in-patient and outpatient treatment programs targeted to the specific needs of each client. In addition, Liberation’s Families in Recovery Program (FIRP) is the only program offering a residential treatment program for women and children in Fairfield County, and the only program in the state that allows mothers to bring two children, up to the age of 10, into the program with them during recovery. Liberation also provides health education resources for people living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses, as well as prevention programs targeted to the county’s youth throughout more than 19 schools. Icy Frantz Receives Award Last Thursday at the Woodway Country Club in Darien, Liberation Programs held its tenth annual “Spirit of Hope Benefit.” Roughly 300 guests gathered to support the work of the organization as well as its steadfast leader, Mathis, who has spent 30 years in the field of addiction recovery. His expertise has been called upon often of late, with the opioid crisis at the forefront of people’s minds. An integral part of the annual benefit has been to recognize outstanding leaders in the community who work tirelessly alongside Mathis to help guarantee that everyone has access to Liberation’s treatments and services that seek it. One of this year’s Spirit of Hope honorees was Greenwich community leader Allison “Icy” Frantz. Frantz has dedicated her time and energy to the crusade against drug and alcohol addiction for many years, and has worked closely with Liberation since 2008, when she served as the Spirit of Hope’s first honorary co-chair with her husband, state Sen. L. Scott Frantz. At that time, Frantz joined forces with the late Lou and Gini Bantle, whose longstanding commitment, dedication and generous financial support of Liberation has manifested in groundbreaking programs, such as “Gini’s House,” a safe-haven for women and children to rebuild their lives. In honor of the Bantles’ advocacy work, Liberation officially re-named the award after them, calling it the “Gini and Lou Bantle Spirit of Hope Award.” Prior to working with Liberation, Frantz worked with the Freedom Institute in New York City, and as a counselor at Greenwich Academy, teaching drug and alcohol prevention classes. Frantz also worked with the International Institute for Alcohol Education and Training (IIAET) as assistant director in Russia, implementing the first A.A. programs in Russia and Poland. Frantz writes a monthly column for the Sentinel, often about finding inspiration among the people and activities of Greenwich life. “We all have something to give, no matter if you are one-day sober, an 11-year old girl, or a top executive,” said Frantz after accepting her award. “The more that you give, the stronger your own resolve will be, and the richer your life will be.” Asked what receiving the award meant to her, she said, “I am so honored to be linked to Gini and Lou Bantle, two people who gave so much of themselves to help an addict or an organization, and I am so proud of the amazing work that Liberation does.” Also honored at the benefit was Deacon Ted B. Meekins, president & CEO of the East End Community Council. Meekins served for over 30 years in the Bridgeport Police Department and was the founder of the Bridgeport Guardians, an organization committed to the eradication of racial and gender discrimination in the police force, easing the way for African American men and women to serve. Meekins has dedicated his life to improving the quality of life for Bridgeport residents and has worked together with Liberation, connecting people with the right treatment programs. Each year, Liberation’s board also recognizes a community organization whose alliance with Liberation’s programs provides its clients with life-saving treatments. This year, the Spirit of Hope was awarded to St. John’s Community Foundation in Stamford and was accepted by board chair Peter A. Stroili. When Mathis reached at the podium, the room fell silent. His height and steady focus seemed to hold the audience in thrall as he discussed Liberation’s mission to provide cutting-edge, evidence-based treatment programs for their clients. But the goal of the evening was to raise funds, especially since state funding has decreased for the agency this past year. By the end of the night, they raised approximately $75,000 for their newly implemented Liberation Employment Academy (LEA), aimed at providing recovering addicts with a second chance at a future. The LEA offers skill development, coaching, job readiness training, and connections to local employers who are recovery-friendly and willing to hire motivated people who would otherwise fall victim to the “societal stigma attached to addicts.” “What we believe in is restoring people to self-sufficiency,” said Mathis. “We hear all the time from those we serve, ‘I want to be able to reclaim my family, but I need a job.’” Opioid Study Present at the event was Greenwich’s first selectman, Peter Tesei, who has worked closely with Mathis for years in the fight against addiction. To combat the growing threat of opioid addiction, Tesei commissioned a study that was conducted by Liberation in conjunction with the Greenwich Department of Social Services last year. The resulting report, “Starting the Conversation: An Inside Look at Opioid Use in Greenwich, Conn.,” examined the increase in opioid usage in Greenwich and its effect on the community at large. Some key findings included: • In 2016, two residents suffered fatal overdoses. • In 2015, 723 people died of overdoses in Connecticut; four were from Greenwich. • State-wide, drug overdose deaths doubled in the past four years; Greenwich experienced 15 such deaths, 10 of which involved opioids. • In 2014, there were 44 overdose calls to the Greenwich Police Department. The study deemed that “the most effective strategy for achieving a significant impact on the opioid epidemic is through a coordinated town outreach effort” (including such community forums as “Chasing the Dragon,” held at Greenwich Town Hall earlier this year). In addition, the report said “the distribution of opioids through medical prescriptions must be limited and unused opioids stored in medicine cabinets must be disposed of in an appropriate way.” The full report is available to the public at liberationprograms.org. Under Mathis’ leadership since 2006, Liberation has increased the number of people served by 38 percent, reduced wait times for treatment, and expanded its services to include transitional employment programs and access to primary medical care through its partnerships with community health centers. In the last ten years, not a single person in their programs has succumbed to opioid overdose. But even more compelling than Mathis’ track record is his determination to uncover “the root causes behind the addiction, not just the addiction itself” for every client who walks in the door. He told the Sentinel that there’s not a single day when he does not engage in at least a two-hour discussion with either a colleague, a community partner, or a neighbor as to how to best grapple with addiction and all its variables. “It’s far more complicated than people believe,” he said, “but we need to understand why people use. “We are experiencing a national drug crisis, as we have before. But we need to go beyond the symptoms,” he said. “We really need to find as many positive ways to increase people’s resilience so they can learn how to manage and navigate the world around them.” As parents in every community struggle with the fear of their kids experimenting with drugs and alcohol, they often wonder how best to broach the subject with their children. “We need to make having the hard conversations with our kids easier,” Mathis said. “The scare tactic about drugs is not an effective approach. It’s about teaching our kids to feel better about themselves. To say you can never disappoint me, if you ever need me, I am there for you.” When asked how can we affect a societal change that will lessen substance abuse, Mathis replied, “We have to continue the dialogue as a strong community (with our neighbors and business partners), and find the best ways to talk with our families, but if we can have an alternative approach to better self-care, such as going for a run instead of pouring ourselves a drink after a long, tough day—we are setting an example for the better.” Call (203) 851-2077 or visit liberationprograms.org for more information on their treatment programs as well as key resources on Recovery for Life. To contact the Greenwich YMCA Youth and Family Resource center, call (203) 869-7279.