Habilitat Inc. was founded in 1971 by Vinny Marino, a native New Yorker and former heroin addict. The facility was originally in Kailua, Hawaii, with room for only eight residents. Marino died of cancer in 2000, but not before exponentially expanding Habilitat’s capacity and treatment capabilities. Today, Habilitat sits on one-and-a-half acres, houses up to 200 addicts and has developed a mostly positive reputation for its unusual and highly immersive treatment.
Now located on the beachfront of Kane’ohe, Hawaii, Habilitat calls itself a “School of Survival” rather than a rehab. While it may seem a laid-back paradise of sun and sand at first glance, treatment at Habilitat is actually more like a boot camp that requires a solid commitment from residents. Unlike most 30 day rehabs, graduating from Habilitat takes two-and-a-half years and forces clients to change their lives dramatically.
Habilitat’s 12-step alternative approach goes against the grain by tackling addiction as a choice, not a disease (though it does require attendance at AA or NA meetings during the final treatment phase). For the most part, its goal is character building through total immersion in the Habilitat community, which serves as a microcosm where addicts can build confidence and life skills through behavioral therapy and vocational training; the mantra is “build better people, not better prisons.”
Accommodations and Food
Habilitat is a large, oceanfront compound just 20 minutes away from world-famous Waikiki Beach. To reinforce the sense of community, women live in a building with their other “sisters” while men live with their “brothers.” The women’s building overlooks the water, with basic dorm style housing with four to five girls per room sleeping in bunk beds; likewise with the men’s housing.
The dining situation has a similar philosophy, and requires everyone to eat together in the dining room. Cuisine is healthy, fresh and served buffet style. Residents have access to both the hot line (often serving pork, beef and rice) and the salad bar. On holidays, Habilitat brings in special dishes, such as crab or steak.
Upon arrival, each resident is allowed to write one letter to a family member or approved contact. After that, no one is allowed to speak to anyone in the outside world for two months (emergencies aside). All outgoing mail is screened, and only immediate family members or approved contacts (which excludes boyfriends and girlfriends) may contact residents. Phone calls are allowed after four months but must be earned and are also screened. Habilitat permits in-person visitation after roughly six months.
Treatment and Staff
Since the medical side of the program is slightly limited, Habilitat also doesn’t offer detox; similarly, residents won’t find standard CBT, DBT or one-on-one psychotherapy here. Instead, Habilitat focuses on overall lifestyle restructuring in three phases.
Phase one is treatment, a six-month period where residents go through a full schedule of social and work-related obligations. Each resident is assigned to a “work-crew,” and is given daily tasks to complete. Other daily events include a morning meeting (a casual time where residents sing or put on skits to encourage bonding), daily seminars with guest speakers and other recreational activities.
Residents without at least a GED must also attend regular classes to receive their diploma during this phase. To that end, Habilitat offers gen-eds on basic math, reading, writing and computer skills. GED or not, all residents are encouraged to take educational classes of some kind throughout their days.
Because Habilitat is reluctant to label addiction a disease, it treats it instead as a side effect of other behaviors and thought processes. These negative tendencies are treated with frequent group therapy sessions which involve engaging in psycho-therapeutic verbal and nonverbal interaction. The general intention is to increase awareness of self and sensitivity to others, and to improve interpersonal skills.
Phase two is re-entry, which involves residents enrolling in a vocational skill track. The various programs include construction, administration, medical assistance, sales and marketing, culinary, clinical (basically social work) and property maintenance. Everyone also receives a stipend during this phase for the work they do, and are taught to budget their money as they would in the real world.
While they still live under Habilitat’s roof and are still closely supervised to prevent relapse in phase two, residents are also encouraged to start interacting with the local community to ease the transition back into the real world; giving back by offering guidance to new inductees is also encouraged.
The final phase is post re-entry, which addresses the difficulties found in returning to normal life. Habilitat tries to ease this shift by offering a full day off every week where residents can explore the island or re-acquaint with family (if family is local or can afford to visit). One-on-one meetings with staff and regular attendance at AA and NA meetings are required here, as Habilitat considers residents the most vulnerable during this phase.
Overall staff presence is surprisingly limited, with only about five program employees on-site on any given day (although many past graduates of the program return to volunteer frequently). Habilitat has an on-site nurse for emergencies, but most other staff members are graduates of the program rather than licensed or credentialed professionals.
Habilitat has an impressive gym with plenty of equipment and a jacuzzi, as well as aerobics and kickboxing classes (optional, with no extra fee). There’s also the option to participate in outside activities like sailing or hiking trips. Other on-site services include a barbershop, a library, a game room, a computer room and a pier with a fishing boat rentals.
Habilitat is even strict after graduation. If the program finds out that ex-residents are even associating with old substance-abusing friends (or even others who dropped out of the program), Habilitat will forbid them from associating with Habilitat’s alumni network of graduates, employees, or current Habilitat residents in any way. To be sure, this program is only for those prepared to completely disassociate from their old lives.
Habilitat could fit those looking to build the confidence and skills to succeed in sobriety, and those looking for an alternative treatment program light on formal treatment. Still, the time commitment and complete alienation from the outside world may be too much for many (as evidenced by varied alumni and community opinions). While some swear by Habilitat, prospective clients should definitely consider whether or not this seems the right fit for them.
45-035 Kuhonu Pl
Kaneohe, HI 96744
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