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University High School: The Recovery High School of Tomorrow

by Mary H.

In Austin, between the Texas state capitol and the UT tower, there is a small Christian church. In the fall of 2014, it will open its doors as the city’s only “sober” high school.

University High School will join more than 20 high schools across the nation in the Association of Recovery Schools, serving student populations with substance abuse problems.

The school will be unique, as it is the first of its kind located on the doorstep of a college campus. Classes will be held in the meeting rooms of University Christian Church on 21st Street.

Lori Holleran-Steiker, a professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin, serves as president of the school and leads the community effort to establish the institution.

University High School Austin

She said the idea was born at a Houston coffee shop after an Association of Recovery Schools conference in the summer of 2012. Holleran-Steiker met casually with Greg Hambrick, who helped found Houston’s Archway Academy, one of the largest recovery high schools in the nation.

“Here’s how you start your recovery school in Austin,” Hambrick said.

Holleran-Steiker was hesitant at first, feeling the weight of her other responsibilities and not sure where she would find the time to start a school.

“When a community needs something like this so desperately, it’s a spiritual thing,” Hambrick said. “Once you start talking about it, all the people who need to be involved start to show up.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, more than 7 percent of adolescents age 12 to 17 reported alcohol and drug dependence problems in 2010. CASAColumbia, a scientific organization that confronts addiction, identifies adolescent substance abuse as America’s number one public health problem, with nine out of ten drug-addicted Americans reporting first use before age 18.

Holleran-Steiker believes there is a missing piece in the continuum of care for young people in Austin that struggle with substance abuse. A recovery high school will provide a much-needed resource to that community.

She described the first year of planning the school as mostly conversation.

Holleran-Steiker recalls a community gathering one morning in her living room, where she and her husband served more than 100 bagels.

Packed on her couches and spread across the floor were addiction treatment specialists, counselors, members of AA, Al-Anon, students from recovery high schools, UT professors, parents of kids in treatment, parents of kids who died from addiction – every imaginable community was represented.

“We had literally the makings of a school,” Holleran Steiker said. “There was this level of conviction that you could hear in people’s voices.”

It still gives her the chills.

What has resulted after much hard work and collaboration is a blend of a non-profit organization and a charter school.

As a non-profit, University High School is able to accept individual donations and receive public grants. The Baxter Foundation in Houston awarded $50,000, and the board matched that amount through private donations. Holleran Steiker hopes UHS can raise $500,000 by opening day to ensure the school has everything it needs to be successful.

These funds will be used to finance the recovery portion of the school – to staff licensed recovery coaches and counselors, pay for drug testing, support after-school activities and cover other miscellaneous programming costs.

Students will pay tuition and program fees totaling about $700 per month, but the school’s non-profit status will guarantee that families pay only what they can afford. Holleran-Steiker wants to ensure that the doors remain open to anyone in need of a safe and sober learning environment.

The board of directors is still determining the best way to provide education to UHS students but boasts a strong and supportive partnership with the University of Texas-University Charter School system, their board and their superintendent Gwen Boyter. The UT charter school system is part of the Continuing and Innovative Education program at the university and has been serving special needs students with university resources since 1998.

UHS is also considering UT Online High School and the Bridge School as possible academic resources.

Their first priority is to establish the recovery community of the school and work with the alternative peer groups that exist to support students outside the classroom.

According to Recovery Today Online, the alternative peer group model began in Houston more than 40 years ago to address the emotional, psychological, spiritual and social needs of adolescents struggling with substance abuse.  Groups like this already exist in Austin, including the Palmer Drug Abuse Program and Teen and Family Services.

All UHS students will be required to attend an after-school program of this kind, and the school expects that its first students will be drawn from these existing programs.

The school will start small to ensure the highest level of care and attention, reserving space for fewer than 20 students.

“We will be looking for students who are committed to recovery,” UHS co-founder Laura Kelly said.

Kelly emphasized that UHS is not a haven for troubled adolescents, forced in by the court system or disgruntled parents. It is a place for students who really want to learn how to live a sober life.

Chandni Kamdar, 18, who graduated from Archway Academy in Houston in 2013, recalls begging her counselors to attend a recovery high school.

“I pushed, and I fought to get a referral,” Kamdar said.

Kamdar struggled in public school to fit in and started taking drugs at 14. Shortly after she dropped out her junior year, her dad found her passed out in her bedroom after a night of taking cocaine and Xanax.

Kamdar went to an adolescent treatment center in Houston and, afterward, joined an adolescent peer group. It was there she learned of Archway Academy.

She described her first day at Archway as “eye-opening.” It was a community where people introduced themselves as addicts and alcoholics and embraced it.

“I think sometimes I felt more at home there than when I went home,” Kamdar said. “That feeling of being wanted and loved was something I got at Archway that I never got at public school.”

Archway Academy serves as the model for University High School. It opened in 2004, and over the past four years, more than 80 percent of students have stayed sober.

The executive director, Sasha McLean, is proud of this achievement.

McLean said that University High School will not look identical to Archway Academy.

“It’s going to take on its own personality,” McLean said. “They will be the only sober high school in Austin, but they will not be alone.”

UHS will have the support of a network of recovery schools all over the country, five in Texas.

Kamdar believes the missing piece in the continuum of care for Archway is an easy transition into college life. This is the gap that UHS hopes to address in its collaboration with the university community and the Center for Students in Recovery at UT and why they feel their location on University Drive is so critically important.

Ivana Grahovac, the director of the recovery center at UT, describes the symbiotic relationship that will exist.

“Their students get to see what college and sobriety looks like, and our students get to give back and feel useful. It’s empowering,” Grahovac said.

The board of directors is still tying up loose ends, but Holleran-Steiker said they are determined to open on Sept. 2, for the 2014-2015 school year. She invites people to witness it themselves and help support the school as it comes to fruition.

“It’s going to be amazing. It’s going to blow people’s minds.”

Anyone who has questions about UHS or is interested in attending for the 2014-2015 school year can email directly to

BRC_Mary H.Mary H. has been sober since April 17, 2012 and is a grateful alumna of Benchmark Recovery Center. She studies journalism and government at the University of Texas at Austin and plans to graduate fall 2015.


Testing the Experts Radio Show with Benchmark Recovery Center CEO Marsha Stone

On Friday, March 21, Marsha Stone was a featured guest speaker for “Testing
the Experts
” Internet radio show, based in Atlanta, GA and was interviewed
by the show hosts, Wes Warrington and Tracy Youngblood-McDaniel.  Marsha
answered questions about the recovery-oriented systems of care concept and
how Benchmark Recovery has successfully helped hundreds of people with their
extended-care recovery program since 2006. Also featured on the show was
Frank Montero, owner of TLC Residential Sober Homes in San Francisco.

Marsha Stone & Testing the Experts

“Testing the Experts”, presented by Confirmatrix Laboratory, introduces top
physicians, treatment centers and rehabilitation facilities, researchers,
law enforcement personnel and other organizations in Atlanta to discuss
their work and examine how drug testing and trends in patient care as well
as drug usage plays a part in their day to day operations. The Internet
radio show airs each Friday at 1:00pm EST.

Are you or a loved one suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction? Our staff of recovery professionals is here to help you find and maintain a life of permanent sobriety.

A Journey Through Recovery with a Loyal Companion

By Mary H.

Behind the big house on the hill, east of Austin in Manor, Texas, the lawn slopes downward and opens toward a clearing that looks out over the northern sky. There is a small garden where they grow okra and basil and different kinds of peppers.

When I was a resident at Benchmark, we had two dogs Thelma and Louise – black labs and crazy as hell. We loved them, my friend Ashley especially.  I remember Ashley always struggled with spirituality and the notion of God. She admits that she still does today. But she can pinpoint moments when she first became aware of something outside herself. She says the dogs were a part of that discovery for her.

After a particularly emotional fifth step, Ashley laid down in the garden for meditation, between the rows of vegetables and herbs. She remembers closing the latch of the gate and setting the timer for an hour. Somewhere in that space and time, she became aware of Louise lying down next to her. Ashley’s still not sure how she got into the garden. But she remembers that Louise was calm and tranquil and very much unlike her usual wild self. When she got up after an hour, Louise stood right up with her and walked out of the garden by her side.

Benchmark Dog
“It was a moment that took something I was so at odds with, so uncomfortable with, like spirituality and placed it in something I was comfortable with,” Ashley said, remembering Louise fondly and recognizing her spiritual nature. “I think animals and little kids know something that we don’t know or have forgotten,” she said.

I remember Ashley telling me this story two years ago, in the Up North bedroom of our little house. We were both in tears. She told it to me again this morning at Quack’s over coffee and cupcakes.

A University of London study published in Animal Cognition journal shows that dogs are more responsive to a person crying than the same person humming or talking. Science is starting to show us that animals, particularly dogs, are aware of our pain.

Maybe that’s why Benchmark is home to so many animals – a space where hundreds of people have come and left their pain over the years.

Ashley and I tried to remember all the animals that shared the hill with us. There were a lot of them. Some were staples of the property, others were like visitors that needed rest and healing and went on their way.  One of the first sounds I heard when I came on property was a chirping bird. He was in a makeshift cage in the RCA office when the staff checked my bags. Two weeks later, on a summer day, we set him free. I remember he didn’t want to go, and Paige had to prod the bird to fly away.

Not long after, I found my own freedom. I was a lot like that bird when they told me it was my time to go – I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I think most of us leave that way.

The dogs, the cats, the bunnies, the birds – their presence was a part of our healing process, and they are just as much a part of Benchmark as any staff member.

Treatment professionals recognize that animal-assisted therapy has physiological and psychological benefits. According to the Addiction Recovery Guide, patients who interact with animals report lowered blood pressure and heart rate, decreased stress levels and improved social functioning. These interactions also reduce feelings of anger, hostility, tension and anxiety, while increasing feelings empowerment, patience, trust and self-esteem. This could account for why many Benchmark alumni continue to feel a strong connection to animals and place a deep sense of value on their relationships with their pets.

We invite you to tell your stories about how animals have impacted your recovery, and send us pictures of you with your pet. Cherish the quiet voices that have sung for your recovery and stood loyally by your side.

BRC_Mary H.Mary H. has been sober since April 17, 2012 and is a grateful alumna of Benchmark Recovery Center. She studies journalism and government at the University of Texas at Austin and plans to graduate fall 2015.

Celebrity Overdose Opens Door for Education on Addiction

It is not uncommon for a celebrity death from a drug overdose to quickly thrust the dangers of drugs back into the news. With the recent death of actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, of a reported heroin overdose, we wanted to address the dangers of this drug and the importance for remembering that addiction does not discriminate.

Heroin, a highly addictive “downer” drug, is derived from morphine and affects the brain’s pleasure systems and interferes with the brain’s ability to perceive pain. Several effects of the drug can be:

  • Clouded mental functions due to depression
  • Slurred speech, pulmonary complications and even liver disease
  • Street heroin can even lead to clogging of the blood vessels do to the many additives that don’t dissolve

So, why is this substance so deadly? Because it is mixed with other compounds multiple times, and consumers are unaware of how “pure” the drug is. Sometimes fatal, the effect on the respiratory system creates an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood and can ultimately lead to death.

Heroin Image

Every day, there are hundreds of opiate deaths that could have been prevented. In the wake of many highly publicized celebrity overdoses, it is very apparent that we can never stop educating our society on the dangers of this disease. Whether you are a star in a movie or a local teacher, addiction is real and does not discriminate. Hoffman’s death is a reminder that recovery is a process that you have to work towards everyday to maintain.

Are you or a loved one suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction? Our staff of recovery professionals is here to help you find and maintain a life of permanent sobriety.

The Benchmark Culture: Helping Others

Mark Houston, visionary and founder of what is now Benchmark Recovery Center, was an incredible spiritual teacher. He often described the culture of the recovery center as a vessel, or a container in which adult alcoholic men and women could come to receive the type of discipline, guidance and healing necessary for not just harm reduction, but permanent sobriety.

One of his favorites was the Lakota Indians tradition of the Hollow Bone.

“We are called hollow bones for our people and for anyone else we can help, and we are not supposed to seek power for our personal use and honor.” -Fools Crow, Lakota

The lesson according to Mark was that in order for us to use our power well, we must become a hollow bone. We must prepare ourselves to become a channel so our Creator can use us to be of service to others. Our channel must be
clean, free of resentments, guilt, shame, anger, self pity and fear. These things block us from being our highest and best. The cleaner we are, the more power we move.

One of the things that sets Benchmark Recovery Center apart is the fact that every employee is in recovery. We have been where our residents currently are, and our lives, as the result of the recovery process, have been transformed in a way that is indeed miraculous. We are able to use this unique qualification to become vessels, or hollow bones if you will, to channel a message of profound experience, strength and hope to a population that so desperately needs it.

A staff modeling recovery at the highest level is a distinct advantage when addressing alcoholism and addiction in a recovery center setting. The experience, empathy and truth-telling that comes with this design has time and time again proven what the old timers in the 12 Step fellowships have known since the beginning- that the magical identification that happens when an alcoholic/addict sits with another knee to knee is the true essence of 12 Step recovery.

And thus we continue…as grateful hollow bones.

Marsha Stone

Benchmark Culture ft. Marsha S.

“Understanding Intervention” with Tony Messbarger of Benchmark Recovery

We are excited to announce that Tony Messbarger, Admissions Specialist, at Benchmark Recovery Center, is featured on a four-part podcast on Take 12 Recovery Radio with KHLT Recovery Broadcasting.

Tony Messbarger Workshops

Take 12 Radio is hosted by Monty’man (Monty Meyer) who has over 28 years of experience working with his local drug and alcohol services. Take 12 Radio is the only recovery radio station broadcasting recovery talks and positive music 24 hours a day.

Tony has been in the recovery industry for more than 10 years, and he joined BRC when it was originally Mark Houston Recovery with Mark Houston. We are proud that Tony is able to share his knowledge on drug and alcohol intervention and represent BRC.

Stay tuned for the three remaining workshops. Below is the schedule for Tony’s workshops on Take 12 Radio:

  • Workshop 1 – Intervention, What Is It?
  • March 7, 2014 Workshop 2 – Getting the Family on Board
  • March 14, 2014 Workshop 3 – Face to Face
  • March 21, 2014 Workshop 4 – Transport & Treatment

You can watch the first workshop here:

A Different Kind of Drug Rehab Center in Austin, Texas

Whether you have completed alcohol treatment or drug rehab multiple times or have never been to any type of a structured treatment program, the Benchmark Recovery Center (formerly Mark Houston Recovery) offers a full continuum of care for addiction recovery.

Benchmark-Bluebonnets-Cactus-Austin-TexasBenchmark Recovery Center offers an extended-care recovery program for adult men and women struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. Located east of Austin, Texas on 70 acres, the gender-specific 90-day residential program focuses on the 12 Steps, life skills, spirituality and fitness. After completing the residential phase, residents transition into company-owned sober living and 12 months of aftercare monitoring. If you‘re ready to learn how to live a sober, responsible, committed life full of promise, we’re here to help you.

When Drug and Alcohol Treatment is Not Enough

A certain percentage of men and women who complete a 30-day addiction treatment program will not be ready to return to society and day-to-day living. Others may actually relapse shortly after completing a drug or alcohol rehab program, only to feel an even more debilitating sense of failure regarding their alcoholism or drug addiction.

It is at this point that these addicts and their families ask themselves: “What can I do to truly recover from my alcoholism or drug addiction? What relapse prevention tools or length of program does it take to achieve long-term sobriety?”

- See more at:

Addiction: A Family Illness

It is so difficult to correctly assess and deeply understand the concept of addictive illness being a family disease. Much like the addict’s ability to truly assess the amount of “trouble” the addiction is causing in their lives, the same holds true for the co-dependent family member. Addiction is sometimes referred to as a disease of minimization.

Alcoholics/addicts and their families often find a false comfort in minimizing the depth to which the entire family is suffering. The illness seems to have a myriad of tricks it plays on our egos, and thought processes that convince us the negative behaviors will somehow have a positive outcome. It even has us believing that if we keep repeating the same behavior, we will get a new and improved result.

For me, I am still at the point in my own recovery that I struggle with co-dependent behaviors pretty much every day. I still find that when my son and the other addicted family members in my life are doing well, then I am pretty much “OK.” When they begin to show signs of their addiction rearing its head, I am not so “OK.” I do understand that is quite the co-dependent response. (At least I can recognize that now, for which I am so grateful!!)

As I continue my journey in recovery, I try to keep in mind all the things I have been taught so far. There is a tremendous amount of information and support available to us via books, CD downloads, AA and Alanon meetings, the internet, professional counselors, I-phone Apps…the list goes on and on. Remembering to embrace it is another story.

Just like our addicted and suffering family members, we are suffering too in our own way. Once we are able to admit that we are powerless over their addiction, we ourselves can begin to recover.

I am so grateful for all the help that is available to addicts and their families. The hard part is admitting I need the help and actually reaching out my hand and heart and allowing it in.

Andrea SchroederAndrea S. RN, CHPN is a recovered family member and volunteer treatment referral source. Her great respect for the 12 step process has called her to service helping families and addicts navigate through early recovery.