SOS Sees Success
by Sue Gibbons
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 19, Number 3.
In the past year, SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety)
Western New York has taken off like a rocket. There are now more SOS meetings in
the Buffalo, New York, area than there were a year ago in all of New York State.
There’s a meeting somewhere in the metropolitan area every day of the week.
The story begins with New York State’s Office of Alcohol
and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), which provides funding to just about every
substance-abuse provider in the state. OASAS mandated that substance-abuse
providers receiving its funding must offer their consumers alternatives to
twelve-step self-help. This was in response to appeals court decisions in 1997
and 2001 that found twelve-step programs inherently religious in nature. For New
York providers to offer only religious twelve-step groups in conjunction
with their tax-funded programs violated the separation of church and state.
Of course, we in SOS have always known that twelve-step
programs are not for everyone—that there’s no “one size fits all” mode
of self-help. Some recovering individuals are atheists; others prefer to keep
their spirituality separate from their recovery; still others just don’t want
to feel “helpless.” But though so many people wanted alternatives, those
alternatives have been difficult to find. Few providers bothered to offer them.
Before the court decisions and the OASAS mandate, most New
York State service providers either didn’t know about SOS or considered it so
far outside the realm of “proven” self-help programs that they didn’t
offer it to clients. SOS Western New York (initially Secular Organizations for
Addiction Recovery, or SOAR) was formed in 2000, and it distributed literature
aggressively in the local area. But few providers shared this material with
their consumers. Even on-site visits to providers couldn’t break the logjam.
Often, provider staff members who sincerely felt that the twelve-step approach
was the only way routed SOS materials straight into the circular file.
In May 2002, OASAS issued its mandate, breaking the cycle
of resistance. The result was nothing short of incredible. Suddenly,
substance-abuse service providers who had ignored previously available SOS
information started calling us, seemingly out of nowhere, requesting meeting
days and times for clients. At that point there were only two SOS meetings in
the Buffalo area and one in Rochester, about sixty miles east. There was no way
we could provide the number of meetings for which demand appeared to be forming.
Clearly the area substance-abuse treatment community needed to be educated about
SOS so that providers could help us to meet their own demand.
In October 2002, SOS founder Jim Christopher came to the
Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, as the keynote speaker for an
educational presentation for service providers. (See the Winter 2002, issue of
the SOS International Newsletter.) Immediately following that seminar,
groups began sprouting all over Western New York.
But the demand for SOS groups still far outweighs the
supply. As the volunteer New York State director of SOS, I joined with volunteer
Eric Chinchón to present a second provider seminar, titled, “Providing the
Alternative: Getting on Board with SOS.” This seminar was well received by
service providers and SOS members alike, and at least one new Buffalo-area group
was formed as a result of the presentation.
As this is written, there are a record fourteen meetings in
New York State, including ten newly formed meetings in the Buffalo area and one
new meeting in Albany—which was founded on June 23 by someone who attended the
May 3 presentation!
On June 2, Eric Chinchón began a full-time paid position
as coordinator of SOS New York, and he has been spreading the message of the
secular recovery alternative across Western New York. This is the first time SOS
has had a paid, full-time position anywhere in the country other than at the
SOS New York is getting ready to spread the message
further. One seminar is being planned for the fall for the Central New York
region (stretching from Rochester and the Finger Lakes area to Syracuse).
Another is in the works for the New York City/New Jersey area. Ohio and
Pennsylvania have lawsuits similar to the New York State cases pending in their
supreme courts. If those cases end in similar rulings, the need for SOS to
expand further across the eastern United States will be imminent.
It has been heartening, to say the least, to see SOS grow
and thrive in this new atmosphere. And the people who are reaping the benefit of
a recovery alternative couldn’t be happier. Groups have new members joining on
a regular basis. Some come out of curiosity; others have been waiting for years
to experience something different than the old standby 12-step model; still
others express relief that they can finally participate in a group whose
philosophical basis is consistent with their own. Substance-abuse counselors who
were initially unwilling even to listen to information about SOS have sat
in on meetings and been impressed by what they’ve seen. Perhaps most
important, those who were unable to tolerate traditional addiction self-help now
have a place where they can come and feel accepted for the first time. The
possibilities seem endless.
Eric Chinchón’s new position keeps him extremely busy,
as the one thing lacking in all of this success has been finding group
leaders—people willing to give their time and effort to facilitate meetings in
their area. Virtually anyone in recovery can be a group facilitator. All it
takes is a little bit of background in the tenets of SOS, a copy of our
“Guidebook for Group Leaders,” and a desire to give back some of what one
has taken out of the program during one’s own recovery. Information on how to
start groups is readily available through the SOS Clearinghouse, and the
training seminars that have been presented by SOS New York will, in the very
near future, be available as well. It is the sincere hope of all of us at SOS
New York that the message that there is a viable alternative to traditional
self-help will grow and spread, so that everyone seeking recovery may feel
comfortable in doing so.
Susan Gibbons is the volunteer director of the Secular
Organizations for Sobriety in New York State.
Eric Chinchón, coordinator of
SOS New York and Susan Gibbons, M.S., volunteer New York State director
of SOS, present an addiction recovery treatment provider seminar on May
3 at the Center for Inquiry–International, Amherst, N.Y.
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