A New Lesson Plan
by Evan West '99
April 6, 2010
Robert Pfeifer’s Sober College celebrates sobriety with a successful new model for treating substance abuse among young adults.
The epiphany came for Madi Farfan in 2007, on Thanksgiving.
When the day began, it looked as though she would be spending the holiday away from her family. At least, that’s what she thought.
Little more than a month earlier, Farfan had enrolled at Sober College, a Los Angeles-based treatment and recovery facility for young adults struggling with substance abuse. She had been addicted to heroin for six years. She had tried detox before, but had used again shortly thereafter.
“I was a junkie,” she says. “I stole for a living. I spent all day, every day, breaking people’s trust.”
Her parents had finally had enough, and they gave her two choices: Get treatment or get out of their lives.
Farfan had chosen the former, and a friend of the family recommended that she look into Sober College, where residents—in addition to receiving substance-abuse treatment—had access to surfing and skydiving. She might not have been crazy about the idea of getting sober, but at least this place sounded like fun. And although Farfan was 25 at the time—an age when having fun comes easily for most people—she hadn’t had any in a long, long time. So on October 16, 2007, she had moved into one of Sober College’s residence houses and faced the prospect of spending the holidays in rehab.
That Thanksgiving Day, all the students of Sober College, who live in a series of houses around Los Angeles, assembled in the main building of the facility for a group dinner. Farfan couldn’t remember ever having enjoyed Thanksgiving, at least not since drugs had become a constant in her life, and she didn’t expect this Thanksgiving to be any different. But when she looked around the table, she saw happy peers who had dealt with many of the same difficulties she had, peers who were finally putting their lives back together after years of pain and disorder. She saw caring, supportive faces. And she started to cry.
“I had never had a sense of belonging before,” she says. “It felt like family.”
When she came into the program, Farfan says, she was still a kid, a tomboy, a punk-rock girl. But somewhere along the way of having all that fun, between the surfing and the skydiving, she learned the skills necessary to help manage life as a grown-up. After two months, Farfan was out of the program, and since she didn’t want to leave Sober
College, she signed on for a five-month internship. When the internship was over, she took a job as a mentor at one of the residence houses and was later promoted to the position of academic advisor. She is taking classes at a local community college and says she would like to make a career of being a substance-abuse counselor. Nobody had ever given her a chance to earn their trust, she says, until Sober College hired her. “Now I dress and act like a lady,” she says. “I grew up here.”
The journey that led to Farfan’s new life—and the new lives of countless other young people like her—began some 20 years earlier, when Robert Pfeifer ’88 graduated from Wabash College and decided to spend a year in a domestic service program. He joined Covenant House, a nonprofit organization that provides services to homeless adolescents and young adults. His plan, he says, “was to defer getting on with my life in order to do a year of volunteer work.” He spent time in New York and Houston with Covenant House, and by the time the year was up, Pfeifer, a chemistry major at Wabash, took a job with the organization and agreed to help extend the group’s outreach mission by opening a new charter in Los Angeles.
It was there that he saw firsthand the extremes to which substance abuse and addiction could damage young people’s lives. Working 12-hour shifts from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., he trolled the alleys and thoroughfares of LA seeking out runaways struggling to survive on the street of the nation’s second-largest city, many of whom were either drug-addicted, engaged in prostitution, HIV-positive, or some combination of the three.
unding the difficulty of Pfeifer’s task was the fact that most of the young people he and his team sought to help had grown to distrust adults. And because of the transient nature of their lives, tracking the success of outreach efforts was nearly impossible. Unable to provide the intensive counseling and supervision truly required to change lives, Pfeifer and company focused on getting the word out that their services were available, and on offering comfort and refuge, if only momentarily. Success might mean getting a troubled runaway to trust them enough to sit in their van for a while, eat a sandwich, and talk about what was going on in their lives. (Pfeifer’s work with Covenant House was chronicled in “It Has to Begin with Trust,” WM Spring 1996.
The one-year volunteer project would become an eight-year run with Covenant House. Pfeifer tried a brief stint washing glassware in a chem lab as a second job. But it was clear to him that being in a helping profession was where his heart lay. At the time, it wasn’t the enterprise of treating addiction that appealed to him as much as it was being able to help people who still had long lives ahead
of them—lives that he might be able to influence positively.
“I really liked the potential and the energy that this age group has,” he says. “They tend to be bright and creative, and I enjoyed being able to connect with them. There was an opportunity to make a positive impact.”
Still, he often felt ill-equipped to adequately address the complex range of issues that led to, and perpetuated, the hard lives of young people living on the street.
“After about two-and-a-half years of working with Covenant House in Los Angeles, I was in the van on a shift, and I turned to the guy who was with me and said, ‘You know, we don’t really know what we’re doing,’” says Pfeifer. “We were worried that we were butchering those kids’ heads with our
Pfeifer sought additional training and went on to complete a master’s degree in social work at
California State University at Long Beach. He eventually parted ways with Covenant House and ventured into the for-profit field, where he spent several years working for CEDU Family Services, a company that provides treatment, in school-like settings, for adolescents and young adults with behavioral and substance-abuse problems.
That combination of treatment and learning laid the groundwork for what would become the culmination of Pfeifer’s career. He recognized the value of offering traditional education alongside the counseling and therapy that typically accompany substance-abuse treatment. But most existing programs were intensive, 30-day affairs that tended to isolate patients in institutional settings. His own experience with young adults led him to believe that many of them would benefit from having more time and ample opportunity to pursue academics and other interests in a sober environment. But he encountered frequent skepticism when, working as a consultant after his tenure with CEDU,
he tried to sell the idea of long-term residency to counseling professionals accustomed to 30-day programs.
“I ran into a lot of objections,” says Pfeifer. “People questioned whether students who needed rehab were in a position to be in school. I think it was the Little Giant in me that was compelled to examine things the way they were and ask, ‘How can I do it better?’”
What was missing from the treatment and recovery landscape, as Pfeifer saw it, was a program that combined the best of two different approaches to treating substance abuse among young adults: the clinical side, which utilized traditional counseling and therapy, and what might properly be called the lifestyle side—an environment conducive to not just academic pursuits, but also experiential learning and personal growth. Pfeifer envisioned a program that offered the benefits of rehab but that felt less like—well, rehab. By the summer of 2005, he had found investors who shared his philosophical—and entrepreneurial—vision. In January 2006, Sober College opened its doors to 11 students.
The program approaches treatment by emulating an urban college experience as much as possible. Rather than being sequestered in an institutional setting, students live in a series of smaller residential houses around the city, where they have the opportunity to work on important life skills. (It was while living in one of the residence houses, for example, that Madi Farfan learned to cook, an activity she now counts as one of her favorite pastimes.)
Students are encouraged to study academic subjects and gain access to an array of educational resources, including Woodbury College, a traditional postsecondary school with which Sober College shares a partnership. Students convene at Sober College’s main campus not only to participate in counseling and other traditional aspects of the treatment process, but also to embark on one of any number of more non-traditional activities—paint-balling, surfing, trapeze, sky diving, and cliff-jumping. In recent months, Sober College has added a 60-seat movie theater and a professional-quality recording studio.
If Sober College sounds like fun, that’s because it is—by design.
“This is a celebration of sobriety,” says Pfeifer. “For the students, we want the experience of being sober to be as powerful as whatever the feeling was that drugs and alcohol gave them. We wanted to build a unique culture here, a place where the students wanted to be.”
Former Sober College residents note that it is largely the personality of Pfeifer—who in addition to founding the program also runs the day-to-day operations—that sets the tone for that culture. With a wit that is variously described as dry and sarcastic, Pfeifer has been known, for example, to pull out an African hand drum during particularly difficult group sessions and ease tensions by parodying the kind of clichéd, touchy- feely therapy portrayed in popular media. Or to show up at a residence house that has fallen into disarray in the guise of “Dr. Truth,” wearing a baseball hat, hooded sweatshirt and oversized sunglasses. He then shares the “truth” with students—that even though it might be burdensome, they need to keep their houses in order to “keep your parents happy so we can still go out skydiving.”
Given the fun-yet-transformative environment, it’s not difficult to understand why the enrollment of Sober College, which stood at 11 when it opened, has now, three years later, swelled to more than 60, and why the program accepts between 125 and 150 admissions per year. But the truest measure of Sober College’s success might not be the growth in its enrollment, or in the profitability of Pfeifer’s business model. (Residents pay about $50,000 for a six-month stay, which, on the scale of affordability, falls somewhere between private-college tuition and the fees for
traditional residential treatment programs). Instead, it is probably the fact that of the nearly 60 full-time employees on Pfeifer’s staff, 20 are graduates of Sober College like Madi Farfan.
Another former student turned employee, Zach Hendel entered the program nearly two years ago to seek treatment for a marijuana addiction. Before going to Sober College, he says, he began each day by waking up and, before getting out of bed, calling his dealer to arrange buying his stash for
“Instead of going to school, I wanted to lie in bed all day and smoke a joint,” he says. He fought with his parents and stole from them. After entering Sober College, he earned his GED and upon graduation stayed on as an intern. Now 20 years old, he works full time for Sober College and heads a marketing-and-communications team responsible for producing multimedia promotional materials and maintains the program’s presence on social-networking Web sites such as Facebook.
“When I think about the fact that I’m making decisions about a company’s marketing plan at 20, it blows me away,” says Hendel. “It’s an added bonus that my desk sits three feet away from a
beautiful new recording studio. Being at Sober College taught me that you don’t have to completely stall your life to get help.”
But while Pfeifer has dedicated his professional life to helping young adults like Hendel acquire the skills they need to achieve sobriety, he shouldn’t be mistaken for a teetotaler.
“I’m a person who can go out to dinner, have a glass of wine, and not go off the deep end,” he says. “I’m not fighting against the detrimental aspects of substances. There is a time and place for everything, including partying.
“Even at Wabash, I saw that there can be an appropriate role for partying in a college environment, and that it doesn’t have to get out of control. And looking back, I can also say that I went to school with people who were probably alcoholics, even though I might not have realized it at the time. The truth is, there are people who can party, and people who can’t. I’m not here to make value judgments. Some people, because of their individual biology, just can’t use substances.
“I think of the college in Sober College more as an adjective than as a noun. It’s about the process of getting life straightened out from poor decisions with drugs and alcohol. We want to give young people who need help the opportunity to turn their lives around and learn how to live sober.”
Upper right: Sober College students try out indoor skydiving
Lower left: The Pfeifer family—Robert and wife, Mindi, who is Sober College's executive director, with their children, Sarah and Benjamin