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Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 7:00am

Ex-Addict Helps Inmates Re-Enter Society

Charles Sperling knows the torment and desperation of drug addiction.

More than 30 years ago, when he was young and living in New York, far from his Alabama roots, he got hooked on heroin.

In 1986, though, Sperling stopped using the drug and started to turn his life around. “I got drug-free and I got busy,’’ he recalls now.

He volunteered to help parolees dealing with their own addiction issues, “guys who were just struggling.’’

Now 64, Sperling runs STAND Inc., a Decatur-based nonprofit organization that serves people with substance abuse problems. He is its founder and CEO.

STAND (Standing to Achieve New Direction) helps former prisoners from Johnson State Prison in Wrightsville with re-entry into society, offering behavioral health services, housing and employment assistance.

It also works with jail inmates who have drug problems, runs a domestic violence program, and does HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. It offers free housing for clients trying to get back on their feet.

STAND’s success is reflected in a three-year, $1.2 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The nonprofit organization, established in 1999 by Sperling, serves more than 200 people a year. Many are among the most challenging patients, says Neil Kaltenecker, executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

Helping those who need it most

“They have always been a program that has reached out to typically hard-to-reach populations –- men and women coming out of jail or prisons, with HIV/AIDS, with backgrounds of domestic violence,’’ Kaltenecker says. “They have done a remarkable job in engaging people and keeping them in services.’’

“Charles treats people with respect by meeting them where they are,’’ she says. “He does not assume that he has all of the answers for someone to get their life on track, but he is always willing to share where he has come from and to walk beside a person in support of where they want to go and how they want to get better.’’

One such person is Anthony Rivers, 60, who was addicted to crack cocaine, and now has been sober for eight years. He’s now a full-time employee of STAND, working as an intake coordinator.

“Had it not been for STAND, I would still be on the streets, if not dead,” Rivers tells a reporter in the organization’s offices in DeKalb County.

Roderick Keith Arnold, 52, enrolled in the program a year ago, after being addicted to alcohol and crack.

“There was a whole lot of fear going on,’’ Arnold says. “I just started listening to the staff.”

Arthur Stewart, 64, has a 40-year history of doing drugs — heroin, cocaine, crack.

“I relapsed about six months ago, and went through detox,” says Stewart, who adds that he has HIV and diabetes.

“STAND gave me another chance at life and dealing with psychological problems,’’ he says. “It brought me closer to God.”

Edward Purdy, 30, was addicted to methamphetamines and marijuana, and he came to the program from jail. “I was the problem, not the drugs,’’ he says.

STAND “has been a tremendous help for me,’’ Purdy says. “It brought me and my wife closer. I feel like I’m on a road home instead of a road of destruction.”

Artis Anderson, 47, says STAND has helped him deal with his guilt and shame. “I’ve been to 10 different programs,’’ he says. “STAND is the best program I’ve been in.’’

Fighting violence as well

Sperling notes that there is still a much greater need for substance abuse services than there are providers available.

Drugs always pose a challenge to society, he says, and he has witnessed the harm they do countless times. Recently, he has noticed an uptick in heroin use, the very problem that almost ruined his life all those years ago.

The organization has an annual budget of $1.3 million. It receives donations and grant funding, along with contracts with government agencies.

The domestic violence program is a recent addition. After six or seven group sessions, Sperling says, “you see these breakthroughs’’ in anger management and relationship skills.

“Anybody who comes in our door gets HIV testing for free,’’ he adds.

“We have different pathways for people to get services,” Sperling says. “That’s what I love about this agency.’’

“If a person is stable for six months, they have a good chance.’’

Though he’s now at what many would consider retirement age, Sperling shows no sign of pulling back on his work.

“I love what I do,’’ he says. “I don’t see a retirement where I go fishing. I see myself as a part of this as long as I have a passion for it.’’

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