Hitchcock Center shines the light at the end of the tunnel for women in recovery

As a teenager, Sara B. got into heavy drinking and smoking marijuana by the time she was 15 years old. When she was 25, Sara tried cocaine for the first time. “That was just the drug for me, and it was never enough,” she recalls. “It was very expensive, and I was spending all our money on drugs.”

Sara and her friends justified their drug use with the YOLO (You Only Live Once) philosophy. “I would go days without sleeping,” she recalls. While she never used drugs while pregnant with her two daughters—now ages three and four—Sara says she went right back to it once they were born. In the summer of 2012, Sara met Kyle, the father of her children, who had his own struggles with heroin.

But thanks to Hitchcock Center for Women, the only treatment house in Cuyahoga County specifically focused on women and the only residential recovery center that allows women to bring their children with them during their stays, Sara is now nearly two years sober.

For 40 years, Hitchcock Center has carried out founder Jayne Mazzarella’s mission to “wholistically” empower women to achieve and maintain productive, chemically-free lives at home, at work, and in the community. Located on Ansel Road in the former St. Mary’s Seminary in University Circle, the center has helped more than 13,000 women in their recovery since its founding in 1978.

“We really do take pride in taking care of ladies from the start to when they leave—and beyond,” says Sue Tager, Hitchcock’s executive director. “Some people need more [support], some people need less.”

Current board members and alumnae of the Hitchcock Center for Women

Hitchcock Center was founded by Mazzarella, a nurse working at Cleveland’s Women’s General Hospital, after she recognized rising substance abuse among her patients. The center was originally housed on Magnolia Drive in a home donated by the Hitchcock family, where it expanded as use of crack cocaine exploded. The center moved into the seminary in 1992.

Hitchcock currently offers two treatment tracks: a residential program with 40 beds, and recovery housing for outpatient treatment. Both programs allow patients to bring children (up to age 12) during the recovery process.

Tager says the setup is designed to get women and their children out of the environments where they are more likely to use drugs, and into a sober living state. “With women and substance abuse, you’re in your apartment, you walk out the door and there’s your drug dealer, or your pimp, or the person who is abusing you,” she explains. “In recovery housing, you have people who support you when you have to get away from all those negative influences.”

But for many of the women who enter Hitchcock, the ability to keep their children with them can mean the difference between getting sober and returning to their old lives.

“It’s such a barrier to getting treatment,” explains Tager. “It’s ‘What’s going to happen to my kids, who’s going to watch my kids?’” In fact, Tager says Hitchcock has an 88 percent success rate with women in the program who have kids. “They complete the program at a much higher rate than single women because they [have more] motivation.”

While in recovery programs, Hitchcock staff educates patients on time and money management, how to structure your day, and how to look for jobs. Children are placed in daycare during the day and return to their mothers in the evenings.

Sara first found Hitchcock through a Google search for recovery housing. “I was three months sober at the time. The father of my children was still using, and it was a non-safe environment for me and my daughters,” Sara recalls. “[My counselor] got me into a sober living house because it was really urgent to get out of that environment.”

A social worker was overseeing Sara’s recovery at the time, and she was in danger of losing her children if she didn’t stay sober. She did, for a while, before relapsing on Labor Day, going back to Kyle, and ultimately leaving the sober living house.

Months later, Sara went to her counselor at Hitchcock and begged for a second chance. She got that chance, but this time, Sara went into the treatment side of the facility and really started to focus on recovery.

“I was full of shame, just sitting there with my daughters and feeling sorry for myself,” she recalls. “The treatment side was a good experience. My kids went to daycare, and they helped us focus on ourselves. Now I understand why I needed treatment. I was able to be a mother to them again, and I realized I wasn’t taking the best care of them.”

Sara’s experience is a common one, says Tager. The staff at Hitchcock are open to giving second chances. “We’ve had people who have been through treatment multiple times,” she says. “You see they feel terrible, but we give some people here another chance because you never know if it’s their last chance, because they [could] die. We just want to make them feel safe, educate them, and support them.”

In addition to taking patients’ children to daycare while they are in treatment, the center also regularly transports women to their daily methadone treatments as they wean off heroin. “We’re very open to whatever meds they need,” she says. “Methadone is better than using heroin, [so we advocate] whatever it takes to help these women get through withdrawal.”

That willingness is one of the reasons Hitchcock has such a good reputation. “We get referrals from everywhere,” says Tager. “Mostly hospitals and shelters around Cleveland when there’s a heroin overdose. We also get self-referrals.”

Tager says the types of substance abuse vary—from opiates to alcohol to cocaine—and that women of all ages come through the doors. “We have a wide range [from] people who are in their 20s to all grown up,” she says. “We have victims of human trafficking and domestic violence. They’re quite resilient.”

The women come and go, Tager says, and they often see a higher turnover around the first of the month when paychecks come in. “Money is a huge trigger,” she says. “A lot of people come into treatment and then leave pretty quickly. The first two weeks are the hardest. But we have a really impressive completion rate.”

The second time Sara entered Hitchcock, she successfully completed the program and moved back to the recovery housing side. It wasn’t an easy journey. In March 2017, Kyle overdosed on heroin, was rushed to the hospital, and died the next day on March 5, 2017. Sara had been six months sober when he died.

On March 12 this year, Sara marked 18 months sober. She moved out of Hitchcock in January and is living in her home in West Park and doing a lot of work with Alcoholics Anonymous. She marked the one-year anniversary of Kyle’s death with a bit of reflection.

“It was the most peaceful day I’ve had in a while,” she says. “I think it was [Kyle] telling me he had made it, and it was okay. He is at peace now.”

Sara is also appreciative of the chance she got at recovery. “I will forever be grateful to Hitchcock Center,” she says. “They saved my life. It’s always nice and comforting to know they’ll always be there if I every need anything. I trust that process.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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