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The house that Joe built

Freedom Foundation’s Joe Gibson offers men a safe place to live and a program that helps them recover from addictions

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Joe Gibson Freedom Foundation

In his office at a home in North End Dartmouth, Gibson has a photo of the Japanese gardens in Lethbridge, Alberta. In the 1980s, while sitting in this park, he developed the concept for Freedom Foundation, a transition home for men recovering from the abuse of alcohol, drugs, and gambling.

“It seems like a dream,” he says. “Here’s it’s almost 30 years and it’s become a reality.”

Gibson is Freedom Foundation’s executive director. When he was looking for a building, he wanted a simple home with a white picket fence. There are about a dozen men living here at any given time and a staff of nine. It was named Gibson House in 2009.

Originally from Cape Breton, Gibson spent several years in Lethbridge, working at Southern Alcare Manor, helping people dealing with addictions.
The place smelled like fresh apple pie and homemade bread, and the place was spotless,” he says. “I met the guys who were living at the house. They were well dressed and groomed. The bedrooms looked like a hotel, and it just stayed with me and I thought wouldn’t it be nice to have something like this happen in Nova Scotia.”

After nine years in Lethbridge, he got a call from Halifax. Talbot House, now Alcare Place on Robie Street, needed a manager for its safe house.
After a year, Gibson left Talbot House. He wanted to start another safe house for men in recovery. “There were so many people were leaving detox centres and going back to the same environment,” he says.

There are three stages to Freedom Foundation’s program. Preadmission is done on the phone. Most come from self-referrals or detox centres. Clients must be clean for a week and have no criminal convictions for violent and sexual offences for at least two years.

Gibson interviews applicants and decides if they’re suitable. During Phase 1, clients get a medical checkup, a meeting with a caseworker, proper ID, and clothing. Phase 2 is treatment, lasting up to six months. It includes addiction services and self-help meetings such as AA or Narcotics Anonymous. Phase 3 is an education phase; the men pursue education and employment opportunities and look for affordable, safe housing.

Some 1,100 men passed through the house over 28 years. About 80 per cent stay sober, Gibson says. Joe Hadley, the home’s first client, started in 1988, a few months before the house officially opened. After treatment, he stayed, working for the rest of his life. One of the rooms is named after him. In it are several plaques with the names of men who have worked through the program.

It’s strict. TV isn’t permitted during the day. Clients must do something productive such as self-help classes. There’s a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call. They must be home for dinner at 5:30 p.m. and attend more classes at night. If they drink, they can’t stay. He remembers one man came in and left after 15 minutes. If they relapse, they can reapply after 90 days. Freedom Foundation is based on what Gibson learned in Lethbridge combined with his recovery philosophy.

“If an individual in the house wants to make changes in their life, we’ll go into the depths of hell to help them,” Gibson says. “If they want to play games, they can go to hell all by themselves.”

Clients become like brothers. “Most of the guys that have come to the house haven’t celebrated Christmas for years,” Gibson says. “Many of them have daughters and sons and once they are sober for a while, to have a gentleman brings his daughter or son to the house is pretty special.”

Gibson remembers the holidays in the 1970s when he was drinking and living on the streets. One Christmas Eve he stood on the corner on Spring Garden Road waiting for someone to say hello. No one did. He moved to the door of a church, thinking someone would say hello. No one did. He sat on the steps, waiting for people to come out. Still, no one said hello. He found his own recovery and has been sober since.

“That’s where addiction can take a person,” Gibson says. “I understood there are so many out there who want recovery and just don’t have the opportunity… They aren’t bad people trying to become good people. They are sick people trying to become well. No one is out there drinking Lysol and shooting drugs because they enjoy it.”

Drew C. lives in Gibson House now. He struggled with addictions for years, but recovered, started a family, and a business. But then he lost the path. “I put my program on the back burner and forgot where I came from,” he says.

His family left, he lost his business, and almost lost his home. He was arrested and jailed for two months. He had known Gibson for years, and Gibson didn’t give up on him. He testified at Drew’s trial.

“He basically said it on the stand, he will move heaven and hell for you if you’re willing to do what needs to be done,” Drew says. “I thank God for Joe. I was so beaten to my knees. I needed the help.”

Drew goes on. “Freedom Foundation wouldn’t be the same without Gibson,” he says. “He knows better what you need than you do. If you pay attention, with no resistance, you will be on a good road. He lives a certain way I would personally like to emulate.”

Gibson says he’d love to retire soon. He wants to play more golf and poker, go to more hockey and baseball games. But he continues to plan for Freedom Foundation’s future.

“It’s such a part of my life,” he says. “I’ve had a cell phone or a pager on my hip for 28 years. “I’ve always been a caring person. Now I can show it because I am away from my addiction. I can look in the mirror and be proud of myself.”

The organization plans to buy an abandoned store across the street where there will be several apartments for men who are in the next stages of recovery, working in the community. He’d like to start another house across the street for women. He wants to have a program for teenagers, too. Gibson says the need for safe home for these clients continues, even when he retires.

“Addiction can hit any family at any time,” Gibson says. “We need homes like this for our children and our grandchildren. When I was on the street, there was nothing. Now we have four or five places in the province. These places have to remain open.”

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