The YMCA in Cleveland Is Helping Recovering Addicts Stay off Drugs —You’ll Be Shocked When You Find Out How
At Y-Haven in Cleveland, an innovative approach to recovery.
On any given Sunday afternoon in Cleveland Ohio, an unassuming theater in the Gordon Square Arts District is filled with eager patrons, while actors prepare for a show backstage.
They undergo the typical pre-show rituals, gathering as a group, shaking out their jitters, and huddling to share one last prayer of encouragement. These actors, however, aren’t like others typically in theater.
Before hitting the stage, these actors also recite a serenity prayer common in recovery groups– “One foot in for the ones still sick and suffering.”
The “Weird” YMCA
For the past 24 years, clients from Y-Haven, a recovery program for adults experiencing homelessness and addiction in Cleveland, Ohio, have processed their recovery through the performing arts.
The Y-Haven office and residential building is on the eastern side of Cleveland. Formerly a public housing building built in the 1960s, the site was occupied by Y-Haven 26 years ago, three years after the group’s founding.
The YMCA parent organization has eleven branches across Greater Cleveland and many more across the United States but, “We are kind of the weird one,” explains Ed Gemerchak, vice president of behavioral health for the YMCA and executive director of Y-Haven, “Not many YMCAs do something like this.”
Initially, Y-Haven focused on serving men experiencing homelessness but is now primarily a residential treatment facility for both men and women with substance abuse problems.
“We’re a little more focused on doing that clinical service,” says Ed. “And we’ve expanded our reach and our size. I think our budget’s about tripled over the last seven years. Our staff has nearly tripled because there’s such a need here.”
Tony Serna, Director of Homeless Clinical Services at Y-Haven, says, “We’ve always considered ourselves a holistic program.”
This quality distinguishes Y-Haven from the many other recovery programs in Ohio and beyond. Part of this holistic approach is the innovative performing arts practice that sets Y-Haven apart.
“I’ve Never Had Anybody Clap for Me”
The initiative is a collaboration between Y-Haven and Cleveland Public Theater, the latter of which was formed in 1981 by James Levin with the mission of “raising consciousness and nurturing compassion” through theater. For the last 24 years this has included the Y-Haven project and it is easy to see why.
When Chip Joseph, Y-Haven’s former director, attended CPT’s rendition of Shakespeare in the Park, he immediately felt that Y-Haven clients belonged on stage. A personal friend of Levin, Chip insisted, “You have to do this!” — referring to a partnership.
Many of the actors who participate in the program have never set foot on a stage before, or considered themselves someone who might. For example, one participant– Samantha– said, “I’ve never had anybody clap for me. I was never in sports, so to get a standing ovation was awesome.”
Another participant, Adam, shared “I had this inclination towards creative arts my entire life and I just didn’t know where to apply myself.” He used the Y-Haven program to act on this instinct and self actualize in a powerful way.
The most recent production was a play titled In Our Wake, led by Melissa Crum. The play tells the story of the main character, Amari, as she searches for forgiveness and reconciliation following the death of her mother.
According to a write-up on the play, “Amari represents, not one singular experience, but a collection of memories threaded through the lives of the cast, a diverse group of men and women.”
It’s All About Process
However, the process of rehearsal and development of the play is just as valuable as the final performance.
“We kind of put them through all the theater training you could imagine,” says Crum, “just telling stories and sharing stories and hearing where they’re coming from and what’s important to them and what they want to say.”
“One of the gifts of art itself,” she says, “is this ability to dive deeper into yourself.” In this way, the production became a vital part of the larger rehabilitative program, an avenue for powerful therapeutic work.
Y-Haven in Cleveland is a shining example of new avenues for introspection, healing, and growth through art. It is also an example of redemption, offering those in recovery a chance to participate in a world of performing arts they might not have imagined themselves a part of.
The program offers audiences and performers a powerful new perspective, and hopefully inspires others like it.