Houston, Texas has a drug problem—a big one. Unfortunately, so do dozens of others communities across the US. But there are two things Houston has that the others do not—Archway and Cates Academy (formally Three Oaks)—high schools for teenagers in recovery, two of only 36 institutions of their kind in the country. From the creators of The Anonymous People comes an inside look into a movement that is not only revolutionizing the way we look at addiction but is saving the lives of countless young people. Generation Found highlights the struggles of high school kids in Houston and the actions that are being taken in the community to help them turn their lives around.
The Kids are Not Alright
The film starts off by laying out some ugly facts: drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in this country and for nine out of 10 people, addiction begins in adolescence. Just Say No seems to be the slogan that teens have adapted about their feelings towards slogans—it’s just not cutting the mustard.
While the number of teens experimenting with drugs may not seem much higher than it has been the last 40 years, the drug culture has definitely changed. Fourteen-year-old kids are just as likely to try Oxycontin as marijuana because highly addictive narcotics that are prescribed by a doctor are often regarded as “safe.” And though many of the kids in recovery high schools have gone on to use heroin, meth and crack, the downward spiral frequently begins in their home medicine cabinet.
Why We Need Recovery High Schools
Even if parents are lucky enough to become aware of their child’s drug problem and get them into treatment, they will soon be faced with another challenge: will their son or daughter be able to stay sober once they are back in their old environment? Many have found the answer to be no, as they join their kids on the roller coaster of addiction. But how can the malleable and underdeveloped brain of a teenager make the right choices when they are surrounded by peers who don’t support those choices? Most adult addicts can’t even make that scenario work. That is why places like Archway Academy have become imperative in giving teens a shot at long-term sobriety.
Housed inside Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Archway Academy opened its doors in 2003 as a basement operation with one staff member and six kids. Now, the fully functional institution employs over a dozen faculty members and serves a community of teenagers in various stages of recovery. Whether newly sober (one to 60 days), just out of residential treatment, currently attending an outpatient program or sober for a while, Archway caters to the specific needs of each of its students. And while not affiliated with any particular religion, the program follows the 12-step model of recovery so it is spiritual in nature.
Archway’s Executive Director, Sasha McLean (who is not only an LMFT and LPC but also sober herself for many years), says she loves working with these kids—and it’s clear that she is passionate about the need for recovery high schools. But the movement is bittersweet. “Part of how we were able to create this beautiful continuum of care is because [the community]got really, really tired of seeing kids die.”
As the camera pans around what appears to be a school assembly, it captures various Archway students as they announce their sober time. “I’m Kristen, I got six months yesterday,” one of them says and the whole room cheers. “I’m Ted, I had three months on the 14th,” more clapping and wooing. The environment is positive, enthusiastic and supportive— three adjectives I would never have used to describe my high school experience. It’s pretty f’ing amazing to see teens clean, sober, happy and supporting each other.
Recovery Isn’t Always a Straight Line
But addiction is a serious disease and getting into recovery doesn’t mean a smooth ride or a happy ending. The film does a great job of showcasing a range of subjects—some tragic, some miraculous and some struggling.
One of the male students, Nick Gerl, talks a lot about how much Archway has helped him and how instrumental his sober friends are in his recovery. But later on, we learn that things weren’t always so sunny side up for Nick. He was very resistant to going to treatment and so his parents had to hire what could only be described as sober thugs to ambush him, handcuff him and drag him into a residential program. He then transitioned into Archway but refused to adhere to their rules, eventually getting asked to leave. It wasn’t long before Nick had strayed away from his sober community and was using again. Thankfully, he had a change of heart and returned to Archway. Some aren’t as lucky.
Claude Deasy, father of a boy named Danny, recalls a poem his son wrote for him while in treatment that ended with “Don’t wait up or worry, everything is alright. Just open my door, I’m asleep in my bed tonight.” And he was. He was home in his bed the night he went to sleep and never woke up.
But students like Hannah Milne keep inspiration alive. Once a defiant teen drug addict who engaged in high-risk behavior, Hannah enrolled in Archway with major skepticism. “When I first heard about Archway, I was like, ‘there is no way there is a school full of sober teenagers.’” She admits to thinking that kids who said they were sober were liars and just faking it to make their parents happy. After two or three months, Hannah left Archway and went into residential treatment but then returned. She said something changed in her and she wanted more for her life. Hannah is now a senior at Archway and was asked to be the main speaker at graduation. She will attend The University of Texas in the fall.
Spreading the Love
While the success of schools like Archway is a monumental step in the right direction, there is still so much more that needs to be done. Even in Houston, home to two recovery high schools and a number of Alternative Peer Groups—or APGs (groups that address emotional, psychological, spiritual and social needs of teens struggling with substance abuse), there are still communities within the city that are not being served. With only 36 recovery high schools in the entire US (though as of filming, an additional seven were in the planning stages), it’s fair to say that we are vastly under equipped to deal the problem of teen drug use. My hope, and I believe the hope of filmmakers Jeff Reilly and Greg Williams, is that Generation Found will help change that.