Ten days from retirement, Sonja Hart was still fighting the good fight.
The director of the Eastern Oregon Alcoholism Foundation stood before the Pendleton City Council Nov. 20 and pleaded that councilors continue funding the foundation-managed detox center. City support has dwindled over the years and rumor was the city will axe detox funding altogether to balance a tight budget. The foundation had received a letter from City Manager Rob Corbett that said the city receives no direct benefit for its contribution.
Hart would have none of it.
“You are getting $212,000 in liquor revenue funds,” she said. “A piece of that should go to treatment.”
It was just another day of protecting the center’s precious financial life blood. Last Friday, however, a long string of those days came to an end for Hart. Her staff, board members and others toasted her with alcohol-free punch at a retirement party. She woke up Monday without an agenda.
Later in the morning, Hart sipped chai tea at Great Pacific Wine & Coffee Co. and reflected on almost three decades of helping people break free from addiction.
The Pendleton native started work at the foundation in 1985 at the request of her former boss at the state’s mental health division. Executive director Elizabeth Brunette, a psychologist, had asked Hart to work at Pendleton’s halfway house for alcoholics — just for a while.
“I said I’d help out for a few months,” Hart said.
The few months turned into 27 years, five as director at the 216 S.W. Hailey Ave. headquarters.
The Pendleton halfway house was one of the first in the state, Hart said. Back in those days, most considered alcoholism a behavioral problem, not an illness. Alcoholics, she said, often ended up in the state mental hospital.
The facility evolved over the years. Currently, EOAF runs the detox unit and oversees two residential treatment houses (for 15 men and 21 women) and a drug and alcohol-free apartment complex.
Sonja Hart was never an alcoholic. She enjoys an occasional beer and doesn’t feel pressed to have another. She has, however, traveled the road with others. She said the life of an alcoholic is complex and frightening.
When they arrive at EOAF, “they are scared — their whole life is in chaos,” Hart said. “They have a lot of problems. Many of the parents are in danger of losing their children.”
Residents attend therapy groups and parenting programs, learn about relapse prevention, go to Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and forge healthy relationships. The center eases the clients back into real life, making sure they have a support system in place.
“They learn to look at things differently,” she said. “We give them a set of skills and tools to change the way they’ve done things in the past. We see a lot of people turn their lives around.”
To reach that point, Hart said, “they have to admit they are powerless over the addiction.” Eventually, most have epiphanies.
These last years, Hart stepped back from the front lines and concentrated more on writing grants and procuring other financing for the foundation. She figures she’s written at least a couple dozen grants.
“She was the steward,” said Clinical Director Colin Dumont.
Dumont said Hart isn’t fond of public speaking, but thought Pendleton city councilors should know what the EOAF does for the community.
“She felt she had to stand up,” Dumont said. “This was a chance for her to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute — we do a lot for this community.’”
Dumont said his boss resisted micromanaging, encouraged employee suggestions and always looked ahead.
“She loved telling the story of EOAF’s evolution,” he said. “However, she is also hugely interested in making EOAF competitive in today’s market place and was always interested in new technologies or strategies to improve the quality of the services.”
Hart credits her team of employees and 13 bosses — the board — for her success.
“I was just the guider,” she said.
Hart envisions a retirement filled with adventures: rock hounding and hunting with husband Steve, four-wheeling with her three grandchildren and finishing long-ignored projects.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.