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Serenity House gets new lease as recovery outlet for women

The Inter-Mountain photo by Amanda Hayes Serenity House is now open as a residential facility for women in substance abuse recovery. Opportunity House peer recovery support specialist Tessa Smith and executive director Matt Kerner stand in the renovated kitchen.

BUCKHANNON –Serenity House is getting a new lease as a recovery house for women only.

Opportunity House, Inc. provides supportive housing programs and recovery support services to individuals in recovery.

That includes the main Opportunity House which houses men in a residential program and a recovery center offering daytime and evening programming.

The COVID-19 pandemic may not seem the best time to launch a new program or service, but executive director Matt Kerner said the pandemic led to this opportunity.

“The house had been closed for a little while because it needed some work,” he said. “We were able to get that done.”

Originally, Kerner thought the house would be an extension of Opportunity House to bring men in and allow them to isolate during the COVID-19 quarantine before being transitioned to Opportunity House.

“We had planned for a while to use this house to bring people in as a cohort, isolate them for a couple weeks and then move them over to Opportunity House,” he said. “But the testing process has changed and gotten faster and our population at Opportunity House has gone down.”

“When COVID-19 hit, members of the judicial system let people off early so our population went down,” he said.

Others did not want to be quarantined at Opp House and left.

Seeing their chance, the Opportunity House staff decided to tackle some needed renovations at the house and moved the remaining residents to a different house.

“We had been trying for a couple years to get some work done over there and it was impossible to work around 12 people,” he said. “It changed what we had in mind and gave us the opportunity to start taking women here. It was just a good time for us.”

So far, Serenity House has one resident who moved in two weeks agao. Kerner said other applications are being reviewed. There is room for six women.

While COVID-19 brought about an opportunity to shuffle people around, it also has brought more challenges.

“I can’t just take somebody off the street,” he said. “They are going to have to come out of detox, a treatment facility or jail so that we know they have been tested, when they were tested and that they have been quarantined since they were tested.”

This is the same protocol that must be followed for new residents to Opportunity House as well.

It’s not the way Opportunity House, Inc. has operated in the past but Kerner acknowledged the new protocols are a necessity for the COVID-19 era.

“That was one of the things that set us apart from our peers is that a lot of them would not take somebody unless they have already been to a 28-day or longer treatment program,” Kerner said.

“We would take them right out from underneath a bridge. That has changed due to circumstances.”

To apply, visit www.opphousewv.org.

Women who are accepted into the program will be expected to follow the same rules as those at Opportunity House.

“First and foremost is not to drink and not to use illicit drugs,” Kerner said. “When someone comes to Opportunity House, we establish a treatment plan — what do they need to do to straighten their lives out? Are there legal issues that need resolved? Do they have a driver’s license, job skills, at least a high school diploma?”

The residents also attend the appropriate recovery meetings.

“The big expectation is when they are not in meetings, we expect them to use their time to work on their treatment plan and crossing things off their list,” he said. “A lot of people get here and everything they own fits in a Walmart bag, so we end up tracking down a birth certificate so we can get a Social Security card so that we can get a Photo ID.”

Normally, residents who are able to work would be required to find employment 30 to 90 days after their arrival but even that is on hold because of the pandemic.

“Right now, we don’t have anyone working just because of COVID,” Kerner said. “We are erring on the side of caution.”

When someone is unable to work, they are still required to do a volunteer position.

Community service is also something that everyone is required to participate in.

A long-standing partnership sees the Opportunity House residents moving books for Literacy Volunteers of Upshur County several times a year. Last year, residents began helping with the Mountaineer Food Bank distribution. Other projects including helping hang the Walk of Valor banners in Jawbone Park with Create Buckhannon volunteers.

“We try to instill in our people that they are a part of the community,” he said. “A lot of us are trying to make amends, whether or not this was the community we wreaked havoc in, and trying to become a positive part of the community. It also puts us in contact with other people through the community who find out we are not scary people.”

Residents are asked for a minimum six-month commitment but can stay for up to two years.

“What we found was if they were here for six months, they were 300 percent more likely to still be clean two years after they left than if they only stayed 90 days,” Kerner said.

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