Friendship House, alumni look back, forward

(Courtesy photo)

Helen Waukazoo, center, chief executive officer of the Friendship House in San Francisco, poses with some of the 70 alumni and staff who attended a reunion April 20 at the Navajo Nation Museum.

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

WINDOW ROCK, May 17, 2012

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T he purpose of most reunions is to look back. But at a meeting of recovering alcoholics here April 20, the focus was on the future.

There were plenty of tears and hugs as about 70 alumni of the residential treatment program at Friendship House Association of American Indians in San Francisco gathered at the Navajo Nation Museum.

It was hard to reconcile the sight of these handsome men in pressed shirts and bolo ties with the stories they told of waking up in a gutter in Farmington covered with ants, or sneaking a bottle of hairspray from a female relative when they couldn't even afford rotgut whiskey.

But nobody was dwelling on the past. They also talked excitedly of getting long-postponed educations and reconciling with the families they had walked away from.

Friendship House itself is looking forward, adding an office in the Good Sheperd Mission in Fort Defiance for its Navajo caseworker and hoping to find a way to add more New Mexico clients to its roster of success stories.

At $188 a day, Friendship House is not expensive - less than you'd pay for a night in a nice hotel. But multiply that times the recommended 90-day stay, and it's a lot more than most of the serious alcoholics it caters to can afford.

Potential clients from Arizona can access the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's version of Medicaid.

But every year Friendship House must turn away dozens of Navajos from New Mexico, because that state's Medicaid program doesn't cover out-of-state treatment programs.

Friendship House is in San Francisco, and evolved from the Native American community centers that arose during the Indian relocation programs of the 1950s and '60s.

Most of the alumni who spoke at the gathering said that's part of the reason it worked for them.

"Wherever I was on the rez, I kept gravitating to Farmington and my drinking buddies," said alumnus Harold Davis, who traveled to the reunion from Oakland, Calif. "I had to get into a completely different environment."

Said Helen Waukazoo, Friendship House's chief executive officer, "It's really hard, because we do get a lot of interest from New Mexico. I'm from that side myself, so I know how much need there is."

"We're all Navajo," added caseworker Gordon Nez, "but that state line is like a solid wall that extends from the top of heaven to the bowels of hell."

Nez admits he sometimes counsels homeless alcoholics to wander to Winslow or Holbrook, Ariz., long enough to apply for benefits.

"But if they've got family in New Mexico, you don't want them to be far from that support," he said.

Friendship House is currently working on getting one of the Navajo Nation departments to contract with New Mexico's Medicaid under Public Law 93-638, or just getting the tribe to set aside some funding for Friendship House scholarships.

President Ben Shelly spoke at the gathering, admitting he had "walked down that road myself," when it came to alcohol, and stating that he would look into some tribally based solutions.

Nez told the group he understands the budget limitations the states are under, but making addicts into productive, tax-paying citizens is a worthwhile investment.

Looking over the very presentable crowd assembled at the Navajo Nation Museum, he declared, "To me, your faces, your smiles, your sobriety is priceless."

Information: Gordon Nez, 505-870-6098.