Odyssey House

FEATURE by George Rosenfeld

Odyssey House was founded as a drug rehabilitation center in 1966 by Dr. Judianne Densen-Gerber. I joined the Board of Trustees in 1997. When the Chair stepped down in 2002 I was elected to succeed her. I served in that position and as Chair of The Odyssey House Foundation until I retired as Chair of the Board in 2012. I have stayed on as leader of the Foundation and as an active Board member.

Around 1998, I arranged for financing from a family foundation to begin a pilot program at Odyssey House for an elder care initiative servicing the needs of substance-abusing clients of age 55 or older. The plan was to use these donated funds as seed money to start a program for this underserved population with the hope that New York State would recognize the efficacy of such an effort and would agree to fund it as part of its general financing of rehabilitation programs. That in fact happened. The program began with 15 participants and is upward of 90 today. We believe the Odyssey House Elder Care effort is unique in the country.

When I first joined the Odyssey Board I took a tour of its facilities. One in particular, on Randall's Island overlooking the East River, caught my attention. A very old building called the MABON housed about 125 clients. The facility served as the first stop for entering patients, some of whom remained there for the length of their Odyssey House experience; others moved on to one of our other facilities. Generally, women who came to us pregnant would stay at the MABON, give birth at a local hospital and return to the center with their children until their therapy was completed.

The mothers and children segment is an interesting aspect of the Odyssey House treatment paradigm. Many of these women came to us mandated by the courts. That is to say, the judge would offer treatment at Odyssey House to some women as an alternative to incarceration. If the woman agreed, she would have a shared room and have her child sleeping in a bed next to her. During the day, while she was in therapy, her child would be in the care of trained personnel (older children, up to the age of five, would be in daycare or enrolled in a Head Start-type program). The importance of this option is that the mothers probably would not have agreed to enter rehab with us unless their young children could be with them. The mothers would likely refuse rehab, fearing that their children would be cast into the foster care system and all that that threatens.

The MABON building, old and sagging a bit, was built around 1900. One half of it 
housed a clinic where NYC’s Department of Health performed prefrontal lobotomies on patients suffering from mental conditions such as bi-polarity, depression, and schizophrenia. That section of the building was called "The Annex" and was in total shambles. Odyssey House occupied the other half, where it ran the mothers and children program and housed some adult male clients. The building was made of brick and mortar and was heated by ConEd steam. It was a bit shabby but it seemed to work as a facility. I started a love affair with the MABON.

My dream was that one day the Office of Mental Health (in Albany) would give us the building and enough money to modernize it. We put the dream on the back burner letting it simmer as we continued to talk to state officials from the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services about the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers for intensive residential treatment. Finally, in 2011, we were given the green light to go ahead and begin this major renovation project to the tune of $26 million.

Five years later the project is near completion. The reconditioned building has all new everything: the architects and engineers have effected a miracle. Soon there will be more than 200 recovering substance abusers in treatment there in residence — mothers and their children, the elder care cohort, and a young women's group. We think the three segments will mingle and be cohesive in a safe setting with a view of the water and surrounded by green space.

The former MABON is being renamed the George Rosenfeld Center for Recovery.