For anyone who's struggling with addiction, finding proper care can be a challenge—to put it mildly. Hospitals tend to keep addicts for just 72 hours, leaving them to deal with sobriety, and everything that comes with it, on their own. That's why community resources are so crucial for those getting clean.
SARA, or Sarasota Addiction Recovery Assistance, is one of those community resources. It's a nonprofit organization that owns one and rents four transitional living homes in town, where women recovering from addiction have a safe and healthy place to live. SARA was founded in 2017 by CEO Danielle Thorpe and CFO Tim Gallien, who are both in recovery themselves. SARA's facilities can accommodate 40 women at a given time.
"Many women come to us with one suitcase and nowhere else to go," says Thorpe. "They are trying to get off the streets, away from dealers and toxic friends or domestic abuse situations. Some don't have jobs, health insurance or even a driver's license or birth certificate."
SARA is more than just a place to stay. It is a recovery-focused organization with a four-phase program that all residents must go through. The program can last six months to two years, depending on a woman's progress. While they're in residence at SARA, the women must attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, find employment, undergo random drug testing and attend house meetings. All residents are responsible for keeping up with chores and general house management.
SARA helps with it all. The staff also facilitates opportunities to meet with lawyers, counselors and other experts if women are in legal, financial or custody battles. Many are separated from their children.
The first house Thorpe and Gallien acquired in 2017, on Bay Street, needed a lot of renovation. After 30 days of a complete overhaul, Thorpe welcomed the first resident, a young woman she'd met from Pittsburgh, who took a bus to Florida for rehab.
"Once the doors opened, people came," says Thorpe. "The demand was so high, and continues to be."
The program is mostly funded by private donors in the community and by residents' rent, which is $175 per week plus a one-time $100 admission fee. Furniture and other supplies are donated by local charities, churches and by Thorpe's husband, who is on SARA's board of directors. However, the organization is looking for more community partners to offer their time, money and resources to help the cause.
SARA residents must sign in and out of their house each day. The women are also responsible for upholding a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drug use.
"We've put in a lot of work to renovate these spaces and make sure they are light, bright and airy, so women feel comfortable," says Thorpe. "For some, this will be the nicest house they've lived in."
Women develop strong connections at SARA, sharing their stories and experiences to encourage one another. Relapse is common in those suffering from addiction, and if it happens while living at SARA, director of operations Ashley Minnick will intercede. She takes women to a detox facility associated with the Sarasota Department of Health or to the hospital, depending on the severity of the situation.
"The girls have to call me from inside detox or the hospital to let me know they're OK," says Minnick. "I've had some women lie to me or never call, but for the most part, they want to get better, so they'll do whatever it takes."
Minnick and Thorpe are the only people approved to pick up residents once they've completed a 72-hour detox or hospital stay, to ensure they aren't exposed to triggers from family members, friends or a partner.
The staff at SARA know what it's like to go through—and resist—treatment all too well. They're recovered addicts themselves.
Thorpe once had a career in personal training, but fell into a drug addiction that incapacitated her. She is now six-and-a-half years clean after going through her own treatment. While at an NA meeting, she met her business partner, SARA CFO Tim Gallien. The two became close friends and knew if an opportunity arose to help others going through similar hardships, they would grab it.
"I wanted a higher purpose," says Thorpe. "This work helps me stay clean, too, knowing that I have people who depend on me—my family, friends and the women in the house. It helps me so much."
Local recovery house owner Steve LaGasse met Thorpe at Church of the Redeemer, where many AA and NA meetings are held, and saw an eagle flying overhead. LaGasse told Thorpe it was a sign. He allowed Thorpe and Gallien to rent the home on Bay Street to begin their program, in addition to one they own. SARA's other three houses were later donated from a local nonprofit called Living With Dignity.
Thorpe says it was always SARA's goal to reach women, especially those trying to reunite with children.
"Many women have kids in foster care because they're just not fit to care for them," says Thorpe. "It is extremely sad to see, and some believe that if they go through the program quickly, they'll get their kids back quickly, too. But they have to be patient. They have to work the steps and be diligent, and with that strong foundation, they can keep all the good things coming back to them."
Minnick was a resident at SARA herself for two years just before she turned 40. She never thought she'd be able to have a normal job, let alone one helping others get clean.
"I never knew what I was capable of. I got so much out of writing in my journal in my room here about all the reasons I used in the first place, and then sharing it with other women in the house," says Minnick.
"It's a powerful healing process and completely free. I couldn't afford therapy," she continues. "My sponsors and the women in this house were my support, and they saved my life."
Minnick now has her own home and has reconnected with her 21-year-old daughter, who reached out after Minnick graduated from SARA's program.
"It's beautiful to see," says Thorpe. "These women show up on my doorstep with one suitcase and nowhere to go. They realize there is more to life, and they can find their passions and happiness."
SARA's next steps include a FARR (Florida Association of Recovery Residences) certificate, which sets the standard for quality transitional living homes, and an eventual 90-day in-house program that will serve as SARA's central facility.
"This would be the first phase of the four-phase program," says Thorpe. "We'd like to have physicians, guidance counselors and other specialists there, but this will take more funding and a suitable property."
"Unfortunately, a lot of people view themselves as the stereotypes—lazy junkies," Thorpe says. "They think, 'If I'm not worth anything, what's there to fight for?' It's not until they recover where they see that flicker of light."
For more information about SARA, click here or call (941) 315-8076.