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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. Why?

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 National Clearinghouse.

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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